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The human dimension: a response to Gitlin and Monbiot

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Todd Gitlin warns of the perils of sectarianism in Letters to a Young Activist, and in his conversation with George Monbiot on openDemocracy he reminds us of the “vulnerability of social movements to demagoguery”. He is rightly mindful of the seizure of power in the United States orchestrated by an administration of right-wing religious fundamentalists, and eager for the left realistically to organise its way into power.

George Monbiot is glad to be educated by Gitlin about some of the history of the “moronic” sectarian left in the US, and recognises parallels in the more destructive extremist factions active in the global justice movement. Monbiot proposes that the “painful process” of defining a coherent political programme is the key to effective political action.

I come at the problem of a progressive global politics from a slightly different angle. As a young woman in the US in 1980, I naively entered into one of the “moronic” sectarian groups that both Monbiot and Gitlin are concerned about. I joined this group because I believed the left needed to be well-organised and serious about power, and because I subscribed to its stated programme of community-based organising within a broad Marxist analysis.

After coming up for air ten years later, I realised that I had become a kind of slave to a crazy guy, and that good organisation (and it was indeed, very well-organised), seriousness (god knows, it was serious), and an apparently reasonable programme were in no way enough to guarantee a progressive, liberatory political movement. Activists, I discovered, as I ruefully dusted myself off, also need to understand how to recognise dangerous political organisations – and to protect themselves, and the broader movement, from them.

A central task for today’s global justice movement is to go beyond simply condemning sectarianism. We need to develop a very specific understanding of closed organisational structures headed by charismatic, authoritarian leaders, and of how relationships, behaviours, and beliefs are manipulated within these groups.

Totalism and the progressive movement

Todd Gitlin takes a somewhat moralistic approach to the individuals who get caught up in such groups. In my own case, I did not join the group because I was sectarian in my thinking, because I believed in an extremist approach, or even because I thought I was better than others. In fact, in the 1980s the American left was well into its downswing and I wanted to stay active, to be a dedicated organiser, and to learn from others with more experience than I had. What I didn’t understand was how to identify the signs and symptoms of charismatic-led totalist organisations.

This is a critical issue facing the global progressive movement, and it’s one we drag into the 21st century from the 20th, the bones of millions clanking along as proof of its dangers. Totalism, and its social-psychological relatives: sectarianism, fundamentalism, totalitarianism and cultism, are alive and well. And totalism – unlike global capitalism – is not driven by profit, but by the raw desire for power and control of each totalist leader.

There are countless examples: from the milder political sects such as the Workers’ World Party operating within today’s US anti-war movement, to myriad murderous sects in Africa (Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army being just one) to the declawed Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the not-yet declawed al-Qaida, Peru’s re-emerging Sendero Luminoso, or the sad off-shoots of 1960s politics like the LaRouche organisation in the US, or the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and the Militant Tendency in Britain.

The same social-psychological thread – one I call charismatic authoritarianism – runs through an array of what are, in cultural and ideological terms, vastly diverse organisations. It thrives on an absolutist or fundamentalist ideology: left-wing, right-wing, on the wings of the angels of the Christian identity movement or the wings of spiritual beings in the New Age. But in the end, the ideological wings don’t matter, the social relationships of people to each other do.

Various writers and thinkers have tried to convey these lessons across generations – for example, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Primo Levi’s The Drowned And The Saved, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, and Robert Jay Lifton’s studies of totalism. But we still lack a popular understanding of the forces at work in these groups. The myth of the pathetic and vulnerable individual ‘seeker’ – or, on the left, the person with the wrong political line – still holds fast, while little progress has been made in helping people understand the universal human response of compliance when faced with conditions of isolation, bullying, fear, authority and deprivation.

The cult of the leader

Just as we try to develop new programmes and organisations for the progressive global movement we must also develop ways to get across these social and organizational vulnerabilities.

A totalist organisation has certain common features. At the top is a single point of power held by a charismatic and authoritarian leader. There are usually a handful of lieutenants, but they exist only to implement the will of the leader. The structure, following from this, is rigidly hierarchical. The boundaries surrounding the inner core of the group are rigid and impermeable, their purpose generally served by secrecy and deception about the actual workings and life of the group (always justified in some ideological manner or other). Front groups frequently exist for recruitment and fundraising purposes.

Once recruited into the group, followers are over-worked, manipulated, and exploited in order to serve the agenda of the leader – and, importantly, rarely to serve the stated agenda for which the follower has joined. Followers may join for any number of reasons – because they agree with the stated programme; because their friends are members; because, like me, they really wanted to make change in the world and they can’t see any other organisations doing it; or, in the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army, they may simply be press-ganged at the point of a gun.

The pathology of the leader now has an army behind it, whether of a small handful of overworked cadre, or a globally-distributed organisation of secret cells. These footsoldiers are not robots; but they are stuck. There is a battering, bullying kind of dynamic that takes place in totalist sects, and it traps and frightens people, confuses them, silences their critical abilities and often creates an extreme obedience. Trusting relationships inside or outside the organisation are destroyed, isolation is institutionalised, and the conversation among people in the group (and between the group and the rest of the world) is reduced to the single dull hammering of the group’s dogma.

How to challenge the pathology of power?

We have to be able to recognise the dangerous behaviours and practices of totalist groups. Defining these is a key aspect of today’s movement and needs to be done openly and consciously – not by “othering” the totalist groups and those trapped within them, but by differentiating, in tangible, measurable ways, democratic and responsive groups from the closed and controlling groups that exist to serve the whims of a single totalist leader.

Within the global justice movement we must:

  • Deal with the fact that totalist groups on both the right and the left (and for that matter, the middle) are a threat to progressive organising

  • Challenge totalist behaviours when we see them – and to do this we have to understand what they look like, and what they signify

  • Avoid the weaknesses of structurelessness (which, as both Gitlin and Monbiot stress, allows those with structure and organisation to gain ground) by defining open, participatory, and democratic processes.

Todd Gitlin and George Monbiot are aware of these issues, but I wish to bring them out much more clearly. We’ve got to get very specific about them, develop our understanding, so we can understand the problems of the totalist movements of our time, and protect our burgeoning progressive movement – not through rhetoric or moral statements, but through a tangible and material understanding of the human processes at work.

Suggested reading and resources to explore further the issues discussed in Alexandra Stein’s article:

  • AFF and Cultic Studies Review: www.csj.org

  • Political Research Associates: www.publiceye.org

  • www.factnet.org

  • Janja Lalich: Bounded choice: The dilemma of true believers and charismatic commitment (University of California Press, 2004)

  • Alexandra Stein: Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Political Cult (North Star Press, 2002)

  • Arthur Koestler: Darkness at noon (1941)

  • Robert Jay Lifton: Destroying the world to save it: Aum Shinrikyo, apocalyptic violence, and the new global terrorism (Henry Holt, 1999)

  • Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth: On the edge: political cults right and left (M.E. Sharpe, 2000 )


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