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Friday, February 19, 2010

Review: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Today I finished reading this book by Robert Jay Lifton, originally published in 1961 and sometimes called the "bible" of the cult awareness movement.

By comparing the accounts of a number of people of varying backgrounds who were subjected to Maoist "thought reform" in the early Fifties, Lifton develops much insight into the processes and mechanisms by which coercive persuasion is attempted and sometimes accomplished, as well as some ideas about the possible motives of the reformers (including non-rational motives) and the kind of historical context that can give rise to such practices.

It was interesting to read about the personal backgrounds of some of the subjects and recognize similarities to elements of my own early life. This provided some insight into why I have had some susceptibility to totalism, as well as successful resistance to its most destructive potentialities. And I became quite engaged by the concluding discussion outlining his idea of "open personal change," as contrasted with the totalistic sort. This seemed very relevant to my own current struggle to find a comfortable balance between engagement and autonomy. I wish Lifton could have gone into greater detail on this topic; perhaps he's done so in subsequent writings.

I was also challenged by the fact that one of his Chinese subjects had come to the conclusion that the methods of thought reform were compatible with and rooted in Leninism, not a deviation from it as he'd assumed before studying Lenin. Although I'm no longer calling myself a Leninist, I'm still resistant to the notion that there's a continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. I'll have to look up the writing cited in the book so that I can make my own judgment.

Update 11 March: I skimmed through the book but couldn't find the citation from Lenin I'd thought I remembered — just an epigram attributed to him at the opening of the section on thought reform of Chinese intellectuals: "We must become engineers of the human soul." But when I try GoodSearching the Web for the source of this quote, I can't find it. Instead, I find the source for a similar statement by Stalin, in which he called writers "engineers of the human soul." On at least one occasion a representative of Stalin also used this expression at a conference, reportedly in reference to all cultural workers. So it appears the phrase is misattributed in Lifton's book.

Of course this doesn't explain why one of his subjects came to the conclusion he did, but it doesn't leave me much to go on; he may have simply been making an incorrect conflation of ideas that really are different.

It did occur to me a few years ago that the tension between the two sides of the democratic centralist formula — "freedom of discussion, unity in action" — would tend to create cognitive dissonance issues for any member of a Leninist group who finds timself in the minority; and I was forced to acknowledge the implications of this when I saw it discussed in Dennis Tourish's paper "Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism, and Cultism." In brief, even relatively loose versions of DC will put such people in the position of appearing to assent, if only by their silence, to positions they don't really hold, and this will produce in them a feeling of insincerity that will bother their conscience. There are two ways of resolving this: adapting to the majority's position inwardly (which may become an automatic habit if done repeatedly), or else leaving the group so as no longer to be bound by its discipline. This rather neatly explains why the one thing Leninist groups are derided for more often than cultism, is serial splintering.

But with all that said, this cognitive dissonance problem alone falls far short of being all the essential elements of thought reform. The other element treated as centrally important in Tourish's paper, ideological intransigence, he sees as more essential to Trotskyism than to Leninism. In fact a quote from Lenin that is sourced — and with which I happen to be acquainted because it appeared for years on the inside front cover of Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, journal of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency to which I belonged 1986-92 — suggests a spirit quite contrary to that of thought reform:


All members of the party must begin to study, completely dispassionately and with utmost honesty, first the essence of the differences and second the course of the dispute in the party.... It is necessary to study both the one and the other, unfailingly demanding the most exact, printed documents, open to verification by all sides. Whoever believes things simply on someone else's say-so is a hopeless idiot, to be dismissed with a wave of the hand. -- "The Party Crisis," 19 January 1921.
The objection may be made that this quote refers to an inner-party struggle and doesn't necessarily apply to non-members. But if internal differences are regarded as legitimate and not necessarily the expression of "the bourgeoisie inside the party" as Maoist doctrine would have it, it's difficult to see how the same allowance would not be made for the views of non-members which may, after all, echo those that some members also hold.

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