Monday, November 25, 2013


So, it turns out that the group involved in the extraordinary Brixton slave case are a weird Maoist cult. You'll have read by now that Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73 (known as "Comrade Bala"), and his wife Chanda broke with the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) in 1974, to form the spectacularly named Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Despite the comedic name of the cult - and my comedic title - the case is unbelievably horrible, and raises important and disturbing issues.

There are many questions still open - what contact Lambeth Council had with the sect, how a very locally based group under very heavy state surveillance in the late 1970s managed to keep a woman a slave for the last thirty years, etc - which I can't hope to address here.

And in some ways the Maoism of the group is irrelevant: their key features are those of a cult rather than those of a Leninist party. (As Lurdan writes in the Libcom discussion thread: "Looking at their writings now they seem to exhibit all the indicators of a classic millenarian sect based on an apparently literal belief in the immanence of global revolution.")

However, there are features of Leninist parties that encourage cult-like activity. Comrade Bala's group is among a very small number of Leninist parties to degenerate into pure cults (NATLFED on the US West Coast is the classic example and the LaRouche network is the most successful) but many more Leninist groups are on a cult continuum.

Being at war with the "bourgeois" (or "fascist") state is an exemplary control technique for forcing members into absolute loyalty and trust of insiders and absolute break with mainstream society. But more specifically there are two features of Leninist doctrine that lead to cult-like behaviour. The first of these is the notion of the vanguard party; the second is that of democratic centralism. Both are sketched out in Lenin's What is To Be Done?, written at the turn of the last century in the context of an ultra-authoritarian police state where open, democratic political organisation was impossible.

The principle of the vanguard party came from Lenin's conviction (based on the thought of his two intellectual mentors, George Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky) that the "the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness," and not able to develop true class consciousness by itself. Thus - whereas Marx argued that the working class could only be emancipated by its own hand and that "communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties because] they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat" - Lenin saw a need for a vanguard to bring class consciousness to the workers. This means, inevitably, that an enormous investment is made in the truth of the party's positions: only the party is able to pierce the veil of illusion under which the rest of us labour.

And the principle of democratic centralism (fully formulated by the Bolsheviks in 1905, with an increasing emphasis on the "centralism" bit rather than the "democratic" bit only later) is that a party can come to a decision democratically but once it does it must carry it out without dissent.

These principles were passed into the hands of the megalomaniac psychopaths who have flourished in the movement since Lenin's death. Both principles are used to enforce absolute obedience to the party leadership, and to stifle all criticism. Criticism, however trivial, undermines the party's claim on truth, exposing that it lacks the true consciousness the workers expect of it.

It is this stifling of dissent and total identification of the party leadership with the truth that enabled Gerry Healy, the leader of the WRP (for many years the largest Trotskyist group in Britain) to abuse countless female party members, as detailed in Comrade Coatesy's "Vanessa Redgrave and the Red Sex Slaves: A Marxist Analysis":
What was the character of this sexual abuse? It was later stated that the women Healy pressurised into having sexual relations with him ‘mistakenly believed that the revolution – in the form of the “greatest” leader demanded this, the most personal sacrifice of all. They were not coerced … physically, but every pressure was brought to bear on them as revolutionaries’. The situation was ‘not so much rape but … sexual abuse by someone in a position of power and trust’. It was, Dave Bruce comments, ‘wholesale sexual corruption in a manner analogous to these religious sects. There’s a very close parallel’.
It is what has enabled the Socialist Party (the WRP's successor as the biggest Trot group) to attempt to sweep under the carpet up all discussion of very serious sexual abuse allegations.

And it is what enabled the Socialist Workers Party (until recently the SP's successor as biggest UK Trot group) to totally cover up a series of allegations about leading member (and Unite Against Fascism organiser) "Comrade Delta".

In the lowest moment in the SWP Delta saga, the SWP refused to subject him to "bourgeois courts" (although it hasn't stopped their activist Professor Michael Lavelette from threatening bourgeois legal action against those making accusations about his role in getting Comrade Delta an academic sinecure in, of all the most inappropriate places for someone facing a rape allegation, a social work department).

The SWP's refusal of "bourgeois courts" is different in degree and not in kind from the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought's view of "the fascist state"; Comrade Delta's actions are different in degree and not in kind from Comrade Bala's enslavement of Rosie and other women.


For more on the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought see the laughably titled "High Tide" page of the Encyclopedia of Revisionism On-Line, a resource that would be wonderfully funny if it were made up, and the source of the image above. For more, see comment thread at Tendance Coatesy.


between the lines said...

So you buy into the media and establishment discourse that spins the Aravindans as "Slave Owners" then?

bob said...

I think so. Is there a good reason I shouldn't?

Loz said...

The practices of the Aravindans are a natural consequence of the kind of cultism which is unfortunately widely prevalent across the English left.

True, the bigger Leninist groups are not holding people captive as household slaves. But demanding loyalty, stifling dissent, getting full timers to live a monastic lifestyle on low incomes, the obsession with new young recruits...the ingredients are all there for some sort of scandal beyond the recent cover ups.

What will be interesting is to see if this business of the Brixton Maoists does lead to some sort of "inquiry" about the practices of small political groups on the left.

Given the impotence and failure of the left to mount any sort of serious political challenge in England, I'm not sure the government are bothered. The Tories are, unsurprisingly, more bothered about the unions.

However, it's open season right now and it wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility for the state to use this as a stick to beat the larger trot groups with, especially when you consider the cover ups of abuse which have been going on.

Given some of the stuff I've seen and heard about over the years, if I was a leading cadre in one of the bigger groups I wouldn't be sleeping too soundly at the moment.

Alex Ross said...

Have just been on the website of the RCPB(M-L) (a successor of the organisation that expelled the two slave owners for being two "cultist")...

I can't even imagine how "cultist" you need to be to be expelled from an organisation that writes stuff like this...

And, even more bizarrely,thinks that this is compatible with "Recognition of All Inviolable Rights" (point one in their "draft programme").

Makes even the Sparts appear relatively sane in comparrison!

between the lines said...

Well Bob, the generally understood meaning of the word "slave" is someone who is forced into unpaid labour, either by law and custom, including debt bondage, or by being held physically captive, as with the recent Castro case.

It's early days yet, but I've yet to see evidence claiming that these 3 women did much in the way of work other than what individuals living together in a community do for each other.

It also appears that these women could - and did - exit the house fairly often and could easily have alerted neighbours and other people locally, had they chosen to do so.

Indeed the youngest woman seems to have been stalking one of her male neighbours for years, with a view to engaging him in a sexual liaison, and apparently also harassed his partner as a rival for his affections. If the letters she wrote him are correctly reported, she exhibits some rather serious mental health problems including delusions and paranoia. As such it would seem fair to take her claims with a bit of scepticism as you have to with any fantasist.

Having been involved with groups and communities on the left for 30 years or so a high proportion of the people you meet have mental health issues and group and interpersonal interactions can often be highly destructive and dysfunctional. If all these groups were investigated by the police and social workers then probably a large proportion of groups on the left would be criminalised one way or another. The establishment would have a field day!

So Loz also makes some very good points here.

bob said...

I have had a bit of a rethink since writing this, partly prompted by Between The Lines and by conversations with others in the real world. I agree that the "slavery" framing is not the best way of seeing this case. Basically, it seems this was a cult, with vulnerable individuals being manipulated, bullied and dominated. But "slavery" is not the right term for what was happening.

As others have pointed out, and I hope was kind of implicit in my post, there is a fuzzy border between this kind of cultism, and the "normal" practice of communes/collectives and of political parties, and placing it in some space of absolute evil, through the word "slavery" is not helpful - especially in the context of the virulent red-baiting (cf Ralphgate) that the establishment has unleashed as Tory austerity becomes more and more hard to bear.

I don't think I stressed enough that the cult-like features of Leninist parties mirror the features of other power structures - e.g. churches, the BBC. And the sense in which the Leninist principles I talked about reproduce older modes of religious thinking. That is, while the incident should prompt us into being more critical of where Leninism can go, it shouldn't make us think that Leninism is the main problem.

Loz said...

Of course, like the figure of Christ and Christianity, it is not Lenin or even Leninism as a theory which is at fault. It is the interpretation and wilful abuse of the ideas.

It's also the absurdity, like printing and producing weekly newspapers simply because Lenin thought it was a good idea to be able to bring one out in Agrarian Russia in the early 1900s.

Its no coincidence that one very long serving Gen Sec of a big trot group was once upon a time trained as a Jesuit priest.

In my younger days as a paid up loyalist, "selling papers" on a Saturday afternoon, comrades and I used to have a good laugh at the churchy nutters setting up their stalls near to ours to encourage people to find god using all sorts of tricks and tactics.

It was only some years later that I realised the irony.

Not entirely sure you could lump the BBC into this though. It's funded by a form of national taxation and staff are (relatively) well paid and try to defend their positions. Amid the dross and bias, it puts out some bloody good stuff now and again, especially when you compare it to commercially funded alternatives.

Unlike, of course, the tedious newspapers produced by our friends in the sects...

bob said...

Thanks Loz.

On the BBC: on the whole, the BBC is obviously a Good Thing, unlike some of the other groups under discussion here. But there is an issue about organisational behaviour in general, and the work of power and authority within organisations, with the BBC and the Catholic church being two high profile examples of how blind eyes were turned to abusive practices because of flaws endemic to organisations in general.

With churches and Leninists, you get the added dimension of religious faith. And then there is cult-like behaviour. There's a continuum connecting these forms, and the lines you cross at which you move into qualitatively rather than quantitatively different behaviour as you move along this continuum can be difficult to call.

bob said...

I like this comment:

In my younger days as a paid up loyalist, "selling papers" on a Saturday afternoon, comrades and I used to have a good laugh at the churchy nutters setting up their stalls near to ours to encourage people to find god using all sorts of tricks and tactics.

It was only some years later that I realised the irony.

TNC said...


"it shouldn't make us think that Leninism is the main problem."

What is the "main problem"?


"Of course, like the figure of Christ and Christianity, it is not Lenin or even Leninism as a theory which is at fault."

I remember Kronstadt, even if was not there.

bob said...

The main problem here is organisational culture and cult-like behaviour, which are wider problems than Leninism.

Re Kronstadt, sure Lenin/Leninism was at fault in many ways, but need not lead to things like this Maoist cult.