Saturday, January 5, 2013

Wooly Cults

I received a nice note from Dennis Tourish, currently a professor of leadership & organisation studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Like me, he’s an academic and former Trotskyist--in his case a member of the Communist Workers International (CWI) in Northern Ireland. He has extensively studied Trotskyist cults and has sent me a lot of information. The piece I read was his article about the CWI, here. (The article is not dated, neither the version he sent me nor the one linked. I don’t know when it was written.)

I am pleased to say, based on Dennis’ paper, that none of the grouplets I follow are cults. I’m perfectly happy to take Socialist Action at their word--they claim to be a political organization, and I think that’s exactly what they are. Socialist Viewpoint, as best I can tell, is a group of people who want to publish their own newspaper. And the folks in the Socialist Workers Party, many of whom I know well, are not mentally ill or stupid. I stand by my previous characterization of the SWP as being a social club with a mission--rather like a church.

If these organizations were cults I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I’m interested in political conversation--something one can’t have with a bunch of fruitcakes. Dismissing somebody as a “cult” is to not take them seriously.

Dennis is also co-author with a certain Tim Wohlforth of a book entitled On The Edge, about political cults.

Wohlforth...? That’s a blast from the past--a name that hasn’t crossed my mind in decades. I associated Tim Wohlforth with the Workers’ League, an organization we considered to be “ultraleft,” i.e., unwilling to make even tactical compromises. We called them the “Woolies,” derived from Mr. Wohlforth’s name. I had rather little contact with the Woolies, so I can’t say much about them.

After I left the Movement, I read that the Woolies claimed the SWP was somehow in cahoots with the CIA. I’m sorry--I don’t remember the details and it’s not worth researching. Suffice it to say that this was one of the kookiest conspiracy theories of all time--right up there with the UN flying around in black helicopters. What I gather from Dennis’ account is that the CWI was in some way related to the Woolies. And a group that can come up with such a prize-winning conspiracy theory may, indeed, be a cult.

Now I accuse my Trotskyist friends of believing in conspiracy theories all the time. Indeed, I think Marxism is just one, big conspiracy theory. So if holding to a conspiracy theory defines a cult, then of course not only are all Trotskyists cultists, but so is much of the Democratic Party. But there are conspiracy theories, and then there are conspiracy theories. The former are untruths that are very easy for people to believe, e.g., “I’m poor because the rich people have all the money.” People, including the grouplets I follow, simply don’t realize that it’s a conspiracy theory.

The other conspiracy theory involves some Mission Impossible scenario, e.g., George Bush destroying the World Trade Center. Mysteriously, none of the thousands of people who needed to be in on the scheme have squealed yet. These theories border on the schizophrenic, i.e., can be symptomatic of a cult. So who knows--maybe the Woolies were a cult?

While I had little interaction with the Woolies, I more often encountered members of the Spartacist League--we called them Sparts. The Sparts were a sectarian split-off from the Woolies (who, in turn, had split from the SWP--we’re talking Trotsky’s great-grandchildren here, or maybe second cousins twice removed). I recall two facts about the Sparts.

First, I think they were all men. If they had any female members, I never met her.

Second, they were nuts. My most vivid memory is when we had set up a literature table on some campus somewhere. We were soon accosted by a Spart who spent the rest of the day haranguing us. The point may have been simply to disrupt our literature table (he was somewhat successful), but I think he also wanted to convert us. His arguments made no sense--I wouldn’t exactly say that he was schizophrenic, but he surely wasn’t entirely rational.

For all I know, the Sparts were a cult. Lord knows why one would want to run a cult with that kind of membership and that program. Nobody--I mean nobody--ever bought their newspaper or wanted to listen to them. No money or glory to be had in that crowd.

Anyway, this is my last post about cults. Case Dismissed.

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