The art of the purge

Processed World magazine on the purges of political sects.

There comes a time in the course of human events when it becomes necessary to dissolve the bonds of solidarity by the most vicious and vindictive means available. The tighter the bond, the more sacred and exhausted the link is held to be, the more brutal its severing. Thus we have developed the Art of the Purge, the act of ritual banishment.

Marxist sectlets, perhaps because of sheer experience, are the most notable practitioners of the Purge, but they are far from being the only ones. As examples I will present my personal experience of three different purges: a Marxist purge, a feminist purge and, finally, a multi-cultural purge. These purges are classified according to the ideology used to justify them, but it will be seen that the principles underlying them are universal and completely independent of the rubrics and rationales employed.

A true purge has four essential elements: secrecy, illegitimacy, maliciousness and compliance by the victim.

First is secrecy: the purgers operate by stealth and lay a trap for their victim(s), who are usually taken completely by surprise when the ambush is finally sprung. An openly planned expulsion may be messy or mean, but it has an entirely different feel than the covert, bolt-from-the-blue of the true purge.

Second is illegality: the plans of the purgers are made in direct contravention of the group's stated rules and regulations. To some degree this is necessary to preserve secrecy. Mostly it's because the principles of the purge, if they were closely examined, would be revealed as contradictory to the stated goals and standards of the group.

Third is maliciousness: the violence and meanness of the purge guarantee that such an examination will not occur. The payoff of the purge isn't merely getting rid of a deviant, it's the reaffirming of the moral supremacy of the purgers. By casting out the evil one they reassert their own purity. This purity is exhaulted in inverse proportion to the degradation of the purgee. Politely asking the rotten apple to depart won't accomplish this; only the complete demonization and maximally destructive ejection of the victim will do. The survivors can gloat over the misery of the cast-outs as they celebrate their newly re-asserted purity.

[The Spartacist League, those purge connoisseurs, have coined the phrase "biological existence" to describe the presumably empty, apolitical life which must necessarily follow ejection from the fold.]

Finally is compliance: the whole thing won't work without a considerable amount of cooperation from the victim, conscious or otherwise. Usually they really and sincerely believe the ostensible ideology of the group, and to a lesser degree in the honor of their "comrades." Most of all, they have bonded to the group and their self-esteem is largely dependent upon it. They cannot leave without a fight lest they feel entirely dishonored, and don't yet understand that the fight has been so carefully rigged in advance that they haven't a snowball's chance in Hell.

In effect they are bound to the group by ideology, by personal ties (they probably have few social connections outside the cult) and by self image. You might be able to just walk away from a group that contains most of your friends, but it is harder to walk away from your ideal self, from your identity as a Marxist or a feminist or whatever. Purgees are usually left to sort these issues out on their own long after the event.
The classic purgees were the Trotskyists of Stalinist Russia. Hard-working revolutionaries who'd committed their lives to the cause and sacrificed everything to the party were rousted out of bed and, in complete contravention of "party discipline," were tossed into gulags and tortured. Accused of bizarre and obviously imaginary crimes, they were urged to publicly confess -- "for the good of the party." And many of them did so! They were perfect purgees, complete patsies who clung to their illusions long after they should have been debunked. They went passively to their executions, capping wasted lives with meaningless and craven deaths.

In a limited way, then, purges are consensual rituals. No open-eyed activist can be truly purged, because at some point in the proceedings they will catch the drift and take a powder. Surprisingly few purgees do, however.


Reconstructing my past purge experiences turned out to be a surprisingly difficult task. At the time these events took place I thought they were forever burned into my memory, so riveting and essential did they seem. But upon recollection they are murky and impressionistic, like the fragmented tale of an accident survivor. I remember being upset; I remember feeling like my soul was being pulled apart, and my sanity shaken; but I cannot remember precisely what was said, or the exact sequence of crucial events. (Nor is any purgee fully aware of the machinations against her/him. Thus what follows must necessarily be focused on the personal, psychological experience of the purge, and accordingly recounts only the actual final show-downs with a minimum of context and background material.

My first purge experience was a classic, old-style Marxist affair. I'd been "horizontally recruited" into the Chicago branch of the Revolutionary Socialist League by my boyfriend Joe, a mid-level honcho in "the party," in 1978. The RSL was a Trotskyist sect run by a "central committee" of a dozen or so who'd met during the student strikes at the University of Chicago in 1969. Just about every major university had a "strike" of some sort that year, and in every case but one the "strikers" avoided punishment. That one exception was the U of C, and the future RSL was expelled en masse. From that point on, they would be the ones doing the expelling.
My purge was technically a branch discussion and post-mortem of a recent major anti-Nazi demonstration which the entire branch had attended. The local Nazis had decided to counter-demonstrate against Chicago's annual Gay Pride parade. The Windy City's gay community, typically, capitulated by moving its rally about two mile away from its original destination, "in order to avoid a confrontation." I had spearheaded the branch’s efforts to organize a queer/radical counter-demonstration with the express intention of seeking confrontation and, ideally, kicking fascist butt.

This counter-demonstration had been a bust for a number of reasons: inability to mobilize the local gay community, inability to unite the fringe of radicals (the independent demonstration committee suffered from the intervention of Spartacist spies and provocateurs who were determined to undermine any competition to the Spart front group organizing on the same issue), and an impossibly heavy police presence. I expected a lively discussion; I got a purge.

My first warning that something was up came when the branch manager, Doug, suggested a change from our usual procedure, which was to have a discussion in four-minute "rounds," brief comments stage-managed by a meeting facilitator who kept exact time and made sure no one spoke twice until everyone else who wanted to had spoken at least once. Instead Doug proposed half-hour rounds, with me going first. Chris, my one partial ally (as it turned out) balked at this, and it was dropped. The idea was that I would have given a straight-forward analysis of the demonstration in my half-hour, and then would have had to sit through three-and-a-half hours of non-stop denunciation from the other seven members before I got any chance to respond.
This clever trick had been discussed upon the night before at an "organizers" meeting. Technically, as a candidate member of the branch coordinating committee, I should have been present at such a meeting, which I pointed out as soon as I realized it had happened. Sally, not officially a branch honcha but in fact the senior member present (because she'd once been the girlfriend of our founding guru, Ron Tabor) said that they'd simply "forgotten" to invite me. This was absurd, and it was rapidly becoming obvious that I had been the sole topic of that entire meeting -- which, it turned out, everyone in the branch had attended except me.

My challenge to this irregular process caused a moment of silence, then Doug announced that "Comrade Wabbitt has such a silver tongue that he can always twist things around and make black look like white; therefore we can't pay too much attention to what he says." Logic thus neatly thrown out the window, Truth lost whatever sting it might yet have had, and the flat-out trashing could begin.

I was accused of "petty bourgeois" deviation, of orienting toward the "middle class movement" instead of the working class. Comrade Mike from Detroit, sent out as kind of a special inquisitor, denounced me as an anarchist, a decentralist, an anti-authoritarian, and anti-leadership.(In retrospect I must plead guilty on all counts; but I didn’t realize this back then.)

Some specific issues were raised. Why had I run off and started a confrontation with a group of skinheads, instead of rallying the rest of the group? This, I replied, was our agreed upon strategy, and I had sent for the group to back me up; in fact, had been told beforehand that I was in charge of the demonstration, and was unaware that this arrangement had been secretly countermanded by Mike. As that side conflict escalated with two lesbian friends and I exchanging chants with a growing knot of freelance fascists, I kept wondering why reinforcements weren't coming as promised, kept looking back at the stationary red banners of my group and trying to convince myself they were advancing; eventually I finally accepted that they weren't and beat a careful retreat. In effect, I had been encouraged to get into a dangerous situation and then left in the lurch.

Why hadn't the group come to my aid? I asked back. "Because we were in a good position to block the Sparts from the TV cameras and didn't want to lose it," Doug answered. I was shocked into

I don't remember very clearly what happened after that, other than that everyone dumped on me. Joe, my recruiter, wasn't present to defend me, being "on leave" and in disgrace for having challenged the national leadership; my purge was largely an indirect attack on him, and insurance that no "gay faction" would form in the RSL. Chris, my quasi-ally, had been promised all sorts of kudos for selling me out, but although his heart wasn't in it there was little support he could offer without risking his skin.

The rest were out for blood. I don't know if they'd hated me for sometime, or if they had to work themselves up to it once I was targeted for the purge, but they sure got into it once they started. The worst by far was comrade Dave, a frazzled-looking, not real bright cadre who'd been grinding away at his industrial job for half a decade. He couldn't organize, write, talk, coordinate or sell papers, but he was the most unquestioning and obedient member of the branch. Why couldn't I be more like him? I was asked, and he accentuated his moment of idealized glory by gleefully denouncing me all the more as a petty-bourgeois who hadn't put in his time in heavy industry rubbing shoulders with the proletariat.

After several hours of this I staggered out in tears, never to have an official encounter with them again. Joe, my boyfriend, promptly dumped me; after three years of a roller-coaster relationship, my purge was the final straw. I was horrified at the implications of this: that the RSL, which had just dumped on him and me, was more important to Joe than I was. My world seemed to have fallen apart.
In fact, it had fallen together, and I was soon making better friends and leading a far more satisfying life doing truly independent politics. The RSL, which had been slowly fading for some years, went quickly into terminal drop soon after this, starting with the decimated Chicago branch. A few years later it dissolved and, to my endless amusement, has since retrofitted as a "revolutionary anarchist" clique within the Love and Rage collective.(I never saw much love at the RSL, but I experienced plenty rage at their hands!)

In a social psychology course I took in college around that time, I read about some famous experiments on authoritarianism done by Stanley Milgram. In one study a subject was asked to judge which of three lines on a card was the longest. However, nine "confederates," who were secretly in on the experiment, answered first and all of them cheerfully pointed to what was obviously the shortest line and declared it the longest.

Eighty percent of the subjects went along with the majority. Only one fifth insisted on telling the truth.

In follow-up experiments the hold-outs were subjected to increasing amounts of criticism for their deviance. As card after card was held up, the confederates continued to vote wrong and began to glare at the oddball. Some cracked and started voted wrong, too. Others stuck to their guns and, weeping actual tears, pleaded that they couldn't help what they saw, and had to tell the truth.

Afterwards, they reported feeling that they were going crazy, and many assumed that they had just discovered some sort of bizarre and rare optical defect. After my first purge, I knew how they'd felt.


Four years later, in 1986, I was in Carbondale in southern Illinois (see PW #29). After getting kicked out of the RSL I'd gotten a "real job" (see 'Progressive Pretensions,' PW #26), gone back to school and finished my undergraduate degree, and gotten into an all-expenses paid (well, almost) graduate program in psychology (PW #31). I was now guppy-track, and on my way back into the middle-class. But I was ambivalent about my upscaling, and drawn by my activist nature into doing service work for that rural, conservative region's marginal gay and lesbian community. When some friends in my program invited me to help them start a gay and lesbian hotline, I and my new boyfriend, Steve, another recent Chicago import, agreed.

At first things went well. A core group of ten was established and trained together. A phone was set up at a local crisis hotline, and forwarded during our open hours to the designated shift-worker's home. New members were recruited and trained.
But soon things went astray. Two factions emerged: a "politically correct" group consisting of two couples, Tony and Hans plus Claire and Sandy, and a "pragmatic" group based on two other couples, me and Steve plus David and Bryan (these last two both local gay men only recently "out" and still in the process of shedding their previous conservative attitudes). The other two founding members quickly became marginal and minimal participants, but they tended to support the "orthodox" wing because they were old friends of Tony's.

We had trouble agreeing on things. The orthodox insisted that all decisions be made by full consensus, rather than by majority vote or even by 3/4 majority vote. In practice, this meant that Claire vetoed everything. Claire, it turned out, had already destroyed one local community organization; when she took over the monthly "New Moon Coffeehouse," a regular women-only event, she banned coffee, caffeine and sugar (alcohol, of course, had never been allowed). This created a milieu so boring that no one, not even frustrated Southern Illinois separatists, could tolerate it and it soon folded.

We had trouble keeping new recruits, particularly women. The orthodox faction insisted that this was because of the residual sexism of the rest of us, but the women drop-outs we talked with said that Claire was just too weird for them, that she was constantly cornering them and accusing them of political incorrectness and/or hitting on them aggressively. After six months only two recruits successfully completed the complicated training course designed by the orthodox; but their final acceptance into the collective was of course held-up by Claire's veto.

There were financial troubles; the orthodox faction refused to participate in fund-raisers at the local bar (the only gay\lesbian space for a hundred mile radius) because such institutions promote addiction and apolitical passivity. They grudgingly allowed the rest of us to raise money there, but we were barely able to pay off the losses incurred by the orthodox faction's attempts to raise money, which were unimpeachable in terms of the political correctness but which always lost scads of money. Collaboration with the campus gay group was eschewed because, according to the orthodox, they were a bunch of frivolous bar-flys and sell-outs.

I thought I'd solved the money problems when I successfully wrote us a grant for $1,200. In retrospect, I can see that this was the final straw, the last temptation needed to push the orthodox faction into purge mode. When we showed up for that months' meeting, we were informed that all the money had been seized and put into a private account; that the hotline was now closed until such time as the orthodox decided to reopen it; and that Steve and me and Bryan and Dave were all henceforth expelled. No vote, majority or otherwise, was required, as the orthodox had reached full consensus among themselves.

It was then that I noticed that only paper cups and plastic bottles had been put out, instead of the usual glasses, in order to deter "violence" (as it was later explained). We were taken completely by surprise. They explained that they could no longer tolerate our sexism, our secretiveness, our plotting, or our yet-suppressed violent tendencies, and this both compelled and allowed them to suspend whatever rights we thought we had.

We agreed to enter "mediation" by a neutral party (my boss at the counseling center, and far from neutral to my mind, but it was her or nothing). The orthodox agreed to this only after I threatened to prosecute them for embezzlement (for their seizure of the bank account clearly violated our charter and the law). During that several month long mediation process we gradually learned how the orthodox faction had reached their decision to purge us.

First they became concerned that we were having "secret meetings." This may have been simple misunderstanding of the fact that Steve and I actually had friends among the gay community and often chatted informally about the hotline when we hung out together. The orthodox faction were all fairly isolated socially-avoidant types, who disliked rubbing shoulders with the sexists, bar-flys, and politically incorrectoids who made up the bulk of our community, and they interpreted our socializing as plotting.

The solution to our supposed secret meetings, of course, was for them to start holding their own secret meetings on a regular basis.

Then they began to worry about the bank account, and to fear that we would seize control of it. They became increasingly unwilling to ever yield up the checkbook, and as soon as the grant check had cleared they "pre-empted" us by taking the money themselves.

Finally, they came to believe we were stalking them: and that's when they shut down the line. I can only assume that this accusation, like the previous two, was a projection of their own intentions, and that we were probably stalked for a while before the boom fell. At the end of several months’ mediation they agreed to return most of the money, and the old hotline name was retired. I re-founded a new hotline in collaboration with the campus gay group (in retrospect, the only feasible way to do it) which is still in operation today.

My self-esteem was battered, although not as badly as it had been by the RSL. But I ceased to consider myself a "feminist," just as my previous purge had shaken me loose from "Marxism." Clearly, the "feminism" of the orthodox faction was nothing more than moralistic superiority, political posturing designed to denigrate any who opposed them and exalt their own prejudices and power plays to the status of holy war, justifying any and every deception.

Did they hate me? By the end, I think, they must have, but I question whether most of them ever dealt with me on any human level. I and my cohorts were, initially, useful for the furthering of their rather unrealistic desires; when we became an obstacle to their desires (they were tired of the hotline but didn't want to leave it -- and its money -- to us) they demonized us and attempted to kick us out. I don't see any evidence that they ever considered our feelings, let alone attempted to understand our point of view. We were paralyzed by our own vague (and ultimately just as unrealistic) desire to be "politically correct." We were suckers for their finger-wagging moralism, because we were insecure about our own political beliefs while they evinced absolute conviction. It wasn't until they tried to screw us out of money that we awoke from our idealistic haze and began to fight back.
In a way you could say that the purge failed, since they ended up giving back the money and I refounded the institution. But they succeeded in their principle goals, which was to unload a now unpleasant obligation (they'd enjoyed "founding" a line, but were unwilling to actually run it), and to do so in a way that "proved" their moral superiority. Certainly, I suspect they were more satisfied with the ultimate outcome than we were.


My multi-cultural purge wasn't really a purge at all, in the technical sense, but rather an auto-da-fe: a carefully stage-managed denunciation rather than an expulsion. I had finished the class work on my degree and was doing my clinical internship at the counseling center of the University of California at Irvine. This was a perplexing paradise: it was a stronghold of "political correctness" just before that term became an overused caricature of itself. It was also clearly a playground for the pampered progeny of the privileged.

Two pre-existing factors set me up for trouble. First of all, the center was already involved in a faction fight that had polarized into a mostly anglo and, incidentally, gay-positive group and another "counselors of color" group which was pressing for more control and in particular for more non-anglo interns and fewer gay ones.

Secondly, the number-two honcho at the center, Tom, was the big brother of a man who'd been denied a teaching position at Carbondale partly because of my opposition. This had been a typically messy affair. Carbondale, although its student population was 65% black, had only five black faculty, and the psychology department had a chance to hire number six. The only problem was that he was a raving homophobe, as the department's gay caucus (including me) discovered in one brief interview (he frothed at the mouth, denounced us as unholy, and ended the meeting by chanting biblical verses in an attempt to drive out the "unclean spirits" that possessed us!). We protested his application; the department debated and then voted 12 to 11 to offer him the position. The department head overturned this decision (based on the candidate's general lack of qualifications) but was in turn over-ruled by the Chancellor of the university. Finally, the candidate refused the position, citing his discomfort with "militant homosexuals" in the department.

The candidate's big brother, Tom, figured out my connection with the affair and immediately began plotting my downfall; I had no idea of his relation to the Carbondale candidate (their last name being a very common one) and for several months was oblivious to my impending doom. He portrayed me to the counselors-of-color faction as a racist crusader dedicated to overturning affirmative action, an accusation that fit in well with the ongoing faction struggles. He didn't aim to kick me out of the program, which would have been difficult, but simply to irrevocably taint my reputation in the University of California system, which is where I and all my fellow interns hoped to find jobs.

Now, officially, if an intern is suspected of political incorrectness, he or she should be invited to participate in prolonged discussions and self-criticism aimed at alleviating these deficits. But this would have forewarned me, given me a chance to use that dangerous silver tongue of mine previously denounced by the RSL, and possibly run afoul of the fact that my anti-racist credentials were in fact more solid than any of theirs, if these are based on actions rather than words. So I had to be "set-up" for a fall; the likeliest opportunity was my official presentation of a "multi-cultural" case before the "multi-cultural issues" panel (which was essentially the counselors-of-color faction).

As it happened, I was diagnosed with AIDS the day before this event, and gave an almost incoherent presentation. You might think that a room full of clinical psychologists would pick up that something was wrong, but they were only too glad to have their first solid evidence of my "racism" and prepared to denounce me thoroughly at a special meeting called for the next week to give me "feedback" on my presentation.

But it was here that I got a lucky break. Preoccupied with my developing personal crisis, I confided in my clinical supervisor, Joe, a semi-retired professor emeritus and the senior black professor in the whole UC system. He listened to my tale of woe and, after deliberating long and hard, spilled the beans and told me of my scheduled auto-da-fe. I had put him on the horns of the dilemma. My persecutor (and his younger brother) were Joe's protégés; but I was his supervisee and this put him under some obligation to me as well. Finally, I believe, he reconciled this conflict by deciding that derailing the denunciation was in Tom's own best interest, for if the conflict became public (and I, as yet unknown to Tom, had nothing left to lose) it would stain the reputations of all involved.

Thus I went to my auto-da-fe armed with secret knowledge and a card up my sleeve. When the chief inquisitor asked if I could explain my poor performance, I "came out" as a recently diagnosed Person With AIDS. This stole the show and successfully upstaged the carefully planned agenda.

That wasn’t the end of my troubles at UC. Later, during their intern selection, the gay vs. ethnic issue came up again. When I proposed accepting a gay Latino man as an intern, one of the counselors-of-color denounced this as racist! "Don't try to pass off that gay as a Latino." she insisted. "You can't be both."
"Why don't you tell him that?" I retorted; she dropped her objection when she realized how bad it sounded. He was finally offered the position, but I wondered if I'd really done him any favor by supporting him. I had never seen this brand of "kick away the ladder" impulse this close up. They were fighting for quotas because it guaranteed payoffs for them and their relatives; their major concern seemed to be to keep gays from horning in on the goodies and claiming a piece of the multi-cultural pie.

If I'd walked into that meeting without Joe's warning, I don't know how it would have played out. But somehow the foreknowledge of the assault blunted its edge, as did the realization of Tom's vindictive involvement. Otherwise I would have taken their racist-baiting much more seriously, as I had the bourgeois-baiting of the RSL and the sexism-baiting of the Orthodox Feminists.

Instead it was just one more disillusionment in a long line of revelations. These "counselors of color" harkened back to their heritage of slavery and oppression; but in fact they all came from well-off middle-class families, had advanced easily along a path smoothed by liberal "political correctness" and affirmative action programs, and were now on the fast-track for promotion by virtue of their ethnicity. None of them had ever gone hungry, none of them had ever fought the Klan in the streets, none had made any sacrifices for "the movement" that I could see. Their ancestors had, apparently, paid their dues in advance for them, and their graciously acceptance of positions as heads of department at high salaries was to be construed as their "contribution" to the common cause. What convenient ideology!

But aren't all ideologies convenient? Ideology converts base self-interest into moral imperative. The RSL didn't merely want to trash me and trim a troublesome faction in the bud; they were compelled by historical necessity to take action. The Orthodox Feminists didn't just want to steal money; no, they had a moral obligation to cauterize the wounds of sexism in the hotline, even if this ended up killing it. Tom wasn't only exacting revenge for the (well-deserved) trashing of his little brother, he was defending affirmative action against the encroachments of creeping conservatism.

In retrospect their hypocrisy is blatant, but at the time I cared about what they thought, and what they said they believed. I could forgive straight-forward trashing of a rival faction by the RSL, or simple theft by the Orthodox Feminists, and even sympathize with the basic lust for revenge that motivated Tom: what I cannot forgive was all of these people deliberately accusing me of lying when they knew I spoke the truth, of challenging my sanity and honor because I'd become inconvenient for them.

Nowadays hardly anyone will admit to being a Marxist, and anyone who wants to -- and few still do -- can claim to be a feminist or a multi-culturalist. Today my only ideology is to avoid all formal ideology. When the self-appointed guardians of political correctness call the faithful to heed, I make sure of my wallet and head for the door.

-- Kwazee Wabbitt