On Cult-like Thinking

Marxism Festival 2017 Opening Rally
Marxism Festival 2017 Opening Rally

Originally from https://internationalsocialismuk.blogspot.com/2013/04/on-cult-like-thinking.html

Submitted by jondwhite on June 14, 2020

It's disarming to a socialist when a rote canard of the right, that the far Left - let alone the group to which that socialist until recently belonged - is 'like a cult', is persuasive.

That accusation has been regularly levelled against the SWP during its ongoing crisis. It's easy to see why: the CC's and loyalists' panicked and bullying responses to perceived heresy; the faith in an infallible leadership (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary); the argument by citation of holy (Cliffite) writ; the almost unbelievable refusal, even now, to admit to any mistakes; the growing sectarianism. But underlying all this, and perhaps the most damning and extraordinary component of such mentality, is a fervent idealism.

This idealism and its dogmas are self-perpetuating. They underpin many of the leadership’s appalling errors and dogged self-defence, and thus demand investigation. As the 'austerity' onslaught continues, there's an urgent need for serious far-left politics. The SWP remains a major player on the Left, its growing isolation notwithstanding. Its regime and fate will continue to have an effect. Getting right the story of what the SWP is getting so wrong is crucial for those of us who have left to ensure that it does not happen again - and for those still inside, to take stock.

Given the CC's lies about a perfidious 'witchhunt', and/or 'hostility to Leninism', it's worth recalling that this catastrophe unfolded when a large section of the SWP was aghast at the initial cover-up of, and subsequent shameful, sexist and indefensible 'investigation' into, allegations of rape and sexual harassment within the party.(1) A scandal in its own right, this episode also illustrated a deep cultural rot,(2) that shocked even those of us in the party who had long argued that there was a democratic and accountability deficit in the organisation. Things were, simply, much worse than we had thought.

But the truly extraordinary shift was from what one might decry as 'everyday' Machiavellianism - reprehensible but hardly unusual behaviour like packing meetings, lying about membership numbers and so on - to this cult-like idealism.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the CC's response to complaints that the members of the Disputes Committee who examined the case were close associates, friends and colleagues of the accused high-ranking member. '[W]e reject', they stress, in the most recent Internal Bulletin (IB, p6) 'the notion that "unconscious bias" in these matters cannot be overcome. We hold that, on the basis of their political commitments, comrades can operate in an unbiased manner. Indeed they took special care at their hearings to consider this factor and to overcome it.'

Such a position has been repeated at all stages. What inoculated members of the Disputes Committee, it is stressed, was their 'political morality'. Of course no one is suggesting that we're all in ineluctable thrall to the muck of ages in which our minds are steeped. Nor that people cannot make perfectly sincere efforts to put aside their preconceptions, with varying success. But unconscious biases are unconscious. The clue is in the name. One cannot know that one has overcome them, nor even that one is aware of them or what they are. One can certainly not be confident one has overcome them by 'special care', or by the sprinkling of some magic fairy dust called 'political morality'. For anyone to claim this is ridiculous. To hear this from those who consider themselves Marxists, with a materialist theory of consciousness, is simply astounding.

If you are Good enough, goes the claim, you can effectively shape your own consciousness, by choice. There are, of course, theories of mind according to which certain people can confidently step outside history in this way. A particularly degraded version of the liberal historical theory of Great Men [sic]; fascist models of ubermenschen, stamping their will through 'the act'; and religious conceptions of saintly souls. The last, religiosity, provides the most obvious analogy with the CC position, but there is also a strong strain of the first, 'Great Men' and Women. Who but the Great never make errors? Who but they deserve to so enthusiastically self-valorise, as the CC do, in, for example, their document 'For an Interventionist Party', proudly citing not only their ability to 'shift the situation in a direction more favourable to the revolutionary forces' (how's that going?), but even their bullying - 'our tradition of polemical leadership'.

It is hard to overstate quite how politically impoverished and theoretically vacuous the CC position is. Compared to this deluded sanctimoniousness, even bourgeois legalism is, at least formally, considerably more progressive, calmly acknowledging as it does the fact of conflicts of interest, and that, in certain situations, the least bad option is to recuse oneself.

Not, in this context, that the mere replacement of individuals would have solved the problems. Are all SWP members supposed to be able to perform this 'politically moral' trick? Are none ever sexist? Or does one have to be a member for a certain length of time to bleach away all such legacies? Perhaps to be active a certain number of hours a week? To sell a certain number of papers? Of course, defining the Elect can only be the prerogative of the priesthood.

And this is the rub. Not only does such degenerate Herculean moralism manifest in a range of SWP tics - from guilt culture to voluntarism and substitutionism - but recognizing it also goes some way to unpicking the peculiarly defensive and impoverished attitude to questions of oppression and identity, such as those around race, sexuality, and gender.

Among the many tasks facing us as socialists is to respectfully and open-mindedly engage with current approaches to these complex terrains. Not to dilute, but to strengthen our Marxist theory. The idealism of the CC is a model of how not to do so. A corollary of their idealism with regard to their own internalised biases and methods is an inability to deal theoretically seriously with internalised biases at the level of social structure and psychology.

The CC protest that they are shocked, shocked at allegations of SWP sectarianism towards feminism, but a leadership not lucky enough to be infallible might i) admit that this has been the case, and ii) take some responsibility for it. Such behaviour of course is related to the theoretical impoverishment that sees the same bibliography on such issues replicated year after year, refusing to address important advances in feminist (and indeed other) theory.

A knee-jerk unease and/or dismissal characterises any discussion of, for example, 'privilege', in terms of sexuality, gender, race, etc. There are of course excellent Marxist reasons to be cautious of such theories, but that does not justify traducing them, nor that the substantive content of some such are without insight. This possibility is precluded in the mainstream SWP discussion by a theoretically crass elision of the categories of 'privilege, 'benefit' and 'interest'.

This allows any discussion of such topics to slip rapidly into reassuring banalities. 'Workers’ objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side' (IB, p10). This is true, but in and of itself not very helpful. When the conclusion drawn is the, sadly, patently false one that 'workers are forced by their objective circumstances to unite across the many divisions in the working class, the division of gender being the oldest and most deeply rooted', it is clear that the complexities of ideology and consciousness are not being explained, but explained away.

Normally one might associate such arrant Marxist determinism with the most mechanical materialism: here, however, it is inextricable from that idealism of a pure-souled priesthood. This Overcoming Of Division is an eschatology, a Rapture.

The crude materialism in fact serves and justifies the moralist idealism. There are two tiers: a few have the magic of Political Morality to efface reactionary detritus in their souls; and by their intercession, the cunning of history will do the job for the rest. There is, therefore, no need to detain oneself too long on these awkward theoretical issues of psychology.

It is one thing to have a respectful and sharp-eyed Marxist caution about identity politics. It is quite another to ossify a body of theory. Tactically it is bankrupt to leave members ill-equipped to engage with advances in radical social theory, particularly now.(3) Theoretically it is arrogant and stultifying not to be open to the idea that we might not only debate with but learn from different theoretical traditions.(4)

Key to any discussion of such issues, and of internalised relations of oppression, is what, in his discussion of race and class, Du Bois called 'a sort of public and psychological wage' paid to white workers (and by careful and cautious extension, in different ways, other groups). It remains the case 'that Workers objective interests are to win the greatest unity of their side', but it is nonetheless quite inadequate to insist that 'this "psychological wage" is not a material benefit for white workers'.

For a start, it is misleading to separate the 'psychological' component of the wage from the 'public', and Du Bois is clear that this latter included 'public deference and titles of courtesy', and access denied black people. Even now, when some of these overt and formalised expressions of racism have been overcome, can it be denied that such differentiation still forms part of the 'public and psychological wage'? And among other things these are material effects - and indeed, relative to the oppressed group in that moment, benefits, or privileges. And a nuanced materialist theory of psychology would acknowledge that even a nebulous and 'unformalised' sense of racist superiority, if in a complex and mediated fashion, is and has material effect itself. Indeed, the overlap of the two components of Du Bois's wage is arguably now stronger than ever: it is precisely when the 'public' element of the wage, including these immediate and local - shall we not hedge? -privileges relative to the oppressed are stripped of official validation, removed from 'formality', while retaining informal but real material power (as in the reality of structural racism in an era of formal legal equality), that their imbrication with the 'psychological' element of the wage becomes ever closer. To consider the material reality of oppression must include considering such social psychological factors.

None of which, it should go without saying, is to give ground on essentialist or inevitabilist theories of racism: to gloss and dismiss the approach to the 'public and psychological wage' tentatively sketched here as a claim that ‘white people benefit from racism’ is ridiculous, a function of an allergic reaction to the very word 'benefit' in these contexts, fostered by the CC's idealism, and their commissars of acceptable theory.(5) Strident citation of workers' objective long-term interests, even to those of us who agree that such are key and indeed exert a pressure for solidarity, are inadequate to tracing the contours of consciousness and ideology, including internalised bias and relations of oppression.

The SWP’s leadership can offer nothing better. Faithful to their idealist method, they pose a sharp division between Thoughts and Things, putting their faith in the latter and effectively dismissing the former (for most people - because their thoughts, we know, are magic, but those of others are not). In their risibly crude formulation, '[t]his is not about the consciousness of male workers; this is about their objective interest' (IB, p10). The obvious Marxist point is that this is about both: and indeed that the two are complexly related. This is how social psychology works.

It's almost tempting to apply a carefully modulated variant of Du Bois's model. Can a public (if on a pitiful scale) and psychological wage perhaps explain the leadership's investment in antidemocratic behaviour, unshakeable certainty in their own infallibility, and such political and theoretical dereliction?

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that under their watch, the dominant SWP culture is now one not only of defensive ignorance of the scholarly discipline of social psychology, but of moralistic and idealist suspicion of the very fact of social psychology itself.


1) It should be relentlessly demanded of all loyalists whether they defend putting the question 'Is it fair to say you like a drink?' to a woman alleging sexual harassment. There have in fact been a very few gutter-Jesuitical efforts to do just this, but for the most part, in what might be evidence of some dying-fish flappings of shame, the fact that this question was put is simply not mentioned, let alone acknowledged as shameful.

2) This rot was evident among other things in the disgraceful behaviour of the leadership and their loyalists; their denial of reality (in particular 'this is having no effect on the party's reputation', and 'this is entirely due to one member blogging and another giving a one-paragraph quote in a soft-left magazine', preposterous claims growing daily more dizzyingly absurd); their smearing and cynical misrepresentation of opposition members; and their wholesale gerrymandering of the 'special conference' in an effort not to engage with but to humiliate the opposition (including at least one largely loyalist district passing a special motion to underrepresent itself at conference, solely to exclude an opposition member).

3) This is particularly lamentable when the internet, even on its Dark Side, has, in its messy, scattershot way, brought such issues into the mainstream, as in the fantastic attacks on racist/sexist/homophobic tropes by bloggers. This should be a delight to the left, and the intemperate online critics should be among those to whom we relate.

4) After all, the IS has quite rightly done this before, over, for example, Gay Liberation. Compare even the rather theoretically wan SWP approach to LGBT issues now to, say, the cringe-making article from the 1957 Socialist Review on 'Equality' by 'C Dallas' (Chanie Rosenberg), explaining that with 'complete equality between the sexes ... homosexuality would disappear naturally'.

5) Breaking from this culture is bracing. It is not mere self-congratulation to point out how many comrades have stressed how much more stimulating, engaged and serious they have found intellectual life in the SWP opposition than for any time in years within the mainstream of the party.