Credulity, fear and leaders like gods, the secret world of cults
Political or religious, they seek to control their members’ lives in the same ways, say experts
By Neil Tweedie
No one knows what goes on behind closed doors, so the saying goes, and that was never more accurate than in the case of 1C Peckford Place, Brixton.
Far from being merely a road ideally situated for “superb shops, restaurants and leisure facilities”, as the property website Zoopla puts it, this corner of south London was, it turns out, a cockpit of global revolution – headquarters, no less, of the magnificently titled Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.
Such ludicrous grandiosity has inevitably stoked memories of the Monty Python film Life of Brian and its matchless send-up of fringe political navel-gazing in the scene contrasting the People’s Front of Judea with the Judaean People’s Front.
But there is nothing in the least amusing about the psychological constraints seemingly imposed on three women, one of whom has known no other form of life, by the elderly couple at the head of the supposed Maoist “commune”.
The goings-on in Brixton suggest a cult-like arrangement in which the few remaining members of a tiny political movement, adherents of a philosophy happily consigned to historical irrelevance, managed to divorce themselves almost entirely from the world just the other side of that front door.
If it is indeed the case, it is nothing new. Human beings, be they idealists or the psychologically vulnerable, have displayed an inexhaustible capacity for credulity when it comes to charlatans posing as political or religious messiahs. Fringe groups come and go but the essentials of cultism stay the same.
“These political sects closely resemble religious cults in using emotional pressure to make adherents conform to their view of the world, no matter how aberrant that may be,” says the historian Michael Burleigh, author of Sacred Causes, a study of religion and politics in the 20th century.
“However bizarre they strike outsiders, for those caught in these webs of psychological pressure, they are fundamentally totalitarian, seeking as they do to control every aspect of an adherent’s life.”
Physical intimidation can be a factor in political cults, as was the case with the late Gerry Healy, leader of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, who resorted to beating up followers who deviated from the party – ie his – line, while using female members to satisfy his sexual appetite. But long-term control rests on manipulating recruits into accepting the internal logic of an organisation.
“There are God knows how many grouplets running around following splits on evermore obscure points of doctrine – just handfuls of people,” says Dennis Tourish, author of a study of dysfunctional organisations, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership. “The thing that drives these people is the concept of ideological purity. So, nobody outside can understand why these little parties keep splitting but to the people who split it is of Earth-shattering significance.
“There is also a belief that the group leader enjoys semidivine insight, so if anyone questions the leader’s view he or she is a heretic.”
Divorced from reality, members accept all kinds of abuse, as in the case of the WRP. Healy, an avowed Trotskyist, regularly demanded sex with female members of his party while driving around in a very un-socialist BMW sports car.
Ted Grant, the demagogue who headed Militant, presided over his own form of madness. So controlling was his regime that members had to ask permission from the chair to open a window to get some fresh air at meetings.
The Socialist Workers Party, meanwhile, has been crippled by allegations of serious sexual misconduct by a senior party member, which its leadership failed to address. But why do people fall for such nonsense?
“Most people who join these groups are within the normal range of personality,” says Professor Tourish of Royal Holloway, University of London. “But evidence suggests that when they join these groups they are experiencing a period of personal vulnerability.
“The key thing is, it is a gradual process. What happens is that you attend a meeting, then another meeting and then you donate a small amount of money. Then they ask you for more money. Then they ask you to stand in the street and sell the party newspaper.
“By the time you have reached the stage of full commitment you have forgotten how that journey started. After a few years, various commitment mechanisms have done their work: you have given up your job or education to dedicate yourself to the party; you have severed your ties with friends and family, and you have nowhere to go.”
Cults are not going away, they simply change form, from religious to political to environmental and racial. Cultish behaviour can even occur in the workplace.
“We all surrender part of ourselves to organisations all the time,” says Amanda Van Eck, deputy director of Inform, a body that tracks fringe groups. “There can be some fairly extreme group behaviour in City banks, for example.
“Globalisation, air travel and the internet mean that ideas spread more easily and we enjoy access to belief systems we might never have otherwise known. There is much more pluralism now, so someone can be a Roman Catholic but attend yoga classes and have a few crystals at home. The world is now, to some extent, a religious and ideological supermarket. You can mix and match and, if you come up with your own belief system, there will probably be someone out there happy to follow you.”
Fonte: The Telgraph