Book Review from Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003
Both Books Reviewed by Janja Lalich, Ph.D.
On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left by Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. ISBN: 0-7656-0639-9 cloth. $34.95)
Tabernacle of Hate: Why They Bombed Oklahoma City by Kerry Noble (Ontario, Canada: Voyageur Publishing, 1998. ISBN: 0-921842-56-2 cloth. $19.95)
Tourish and Wohlforth wrote On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left out of their concern for healthy participation in democratic political processes. While the focus on political cults is especially important in today’s climate of terrorism and political repression, more information on this type of cult is needed in general. Some years back, for example, when Dennis King published Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism (Doubleday, 1989), there was very little available about political cults. To locate articles on the subject, one had to contact Chip Berlet at Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., or other organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala., or search the archives of various weekly independent presses, such as The Guardian or City Paper. My own writings on the left-wing Democratic Workers Party, first published in Cultic Studies Journal in 1992 and then elsewhere, were among the few works drawing connections between cultic phenomena and the practices of certain political sects. Consequently, On the Edge is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature in this field.
For many people who still believe the old myth that all cults are religious, this study of political cults expands our understanding of these social formations. Indeed, some religious cults may take an interest in the political environment or particular issues, and may have entire sections or individuals whose purpose is to influence politicians or political outcomes. Yet the kinds of groups discussed in this book are substantively different in that they “advocate programs of total social transformation” (p. 33). Ultimately, the goal is to seize state power. In the meantime, the leader(s) create an environment characterized by ideological totalism, and the members are expected to devote their lives to the group’s political mission, be it left or right. The authors’ premise is that political cults are “miniature totalitarian societies.” Their danger lies in their efforts at “seeking money, recruits, and influence” (p. xi). In that regard, these groups tend to siphon money from just causes; they burn out their members and, in some cases of deep disillusionment, turn them away from further participation in political processes or causes; and, despite their rather small numbers, these groups have a negative impact on political life, skewing causes and issues in the direction of their own untoward ends. All of this is brought to life through the authors’ analyses and their descriptions of ten or more cultic organizations, their foundational ideologies, and their daily practices.
In Part I, Tourish and Wohlforth bring together key points from the classic literature on persuasion and thought reform, illustrating clearly how they apply to political cults. The newcomer will learn the essential principles of social psychology that explain most cult practices, from recruitment to the development of the deployable agent. For those more familiar with cultic studies, these early chapters serve as a fine reference point and review of the works of Janis, Milgram, Sherif, Zimbardo, Cialdini, and, of course, Lifton.
Chapters in the remaining three parts of the book feature illustrative groups on the right and on the left, and select therapy cults known to have a political thrust. While these are not in-depth studies, they summarize key personalities, developments, and events, presenting fascinating histories of the growth and evolution of each group, their purported goals and political activities, along with concise summaries of the basic theoretical and emotional justifications used by each group to draw in and hold members.
First, Tourish and Wohlforth address right-wing groups and their call for white supremacy. The authors explain the foundations of Christian Identity philosophy within the framework of the literature on the psychology of prejudice and hate. Groups such as Aryan Nations, Posse Comitatus, and the Ku Klux Klan are put in their historical context. Similarly, significant connections are made to such figures as survivalist Randy Weaver (Ruby Ridge) and William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, a book that was influential in the development of Timothy McVeigh’s ideological belief system of violence and hate. An interesting addition to this section is the chapter on Lyndon LaRouche, who, in his own political evolution, traveled from extreme left to extreme right. LaRouche’s activities go back to 1947, from Trotskyism, through the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the ‘60s, to his own National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), which gradually transitioned further and further to the right. Discussed are LaRouche’s links to fascist and neo-Nazi groups and activities, including his overt anti-Semitism and penchant for outrageous conspiracy theories. Many readers may not realize the extent of LaRouche’s involvement in our country’s political processes. For example, members of his organization have won primary slots in various state-level elections and have launched state ballot initiatives; and LaRouche regularly runs for President and proposed himself as economic advisor to President Clinton. These depictions of some of the white-supremacist groups and the LaRouche variation of fascism provide ample evidence of our need to take these organizations seriously and to encourage further study of them.
On the left, Tourish and Wohlforth focus on four groups: two are Marxist in orientation, and two Trotskyite. The latter two, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and the Committee for a Workers International (CWI)—at least in their U.K. incarnations—affected some degree of political clout. Nonetheless, most leftist cults tend to be far more ineffectual, often becoming caricatures of themselves; and they tend to have quite small memberships. Apparently, this has not deterred the leaders of such groups from having lives of excess – in goods, sex, and/or power—and the followers from leading Spartan lives of hard work and self-denial. The two Marxist groups discussed in the book are the Democratic Workers Party (DWP) and the Communist Party, U.S.A. (Provisional), a.k.a. the National Labor Federation (NATLFD). Only NATLFD is still in existence, with small outposts in select cities around the country. Left-wing groups are best known perhaps for the generation of an alphabet soup of names (in this case, WRP, CWI, DWP, NATLFD) and their myriad front groups, indicative of their use of deception in implementing their political programs and as a tool for recruitment. Tourish and Wohlforth describe this phenomenon in detail, as well as introducing other important concepts, such as the significance of “clique formation” (p. 157) and similarities to religious and other forms of guruism and cultism. As an example, the authors make an interesting analogy between WRP leader Gerry Healy’s philosophical distortions of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks and David Koresh’s belief that he knew the secret meaning of the Seven Seals. Given that many readers may not be familiar with political cults, their ideas and terminology, or their actual practices, the authors do an excellent job of drawing comparisons and making links to discussions in other parts of the book or to other well-known cult examples. This makes the material less arcane and of greater relevance to more readers.
On the Edge’s middle section is devoted to therapy cults with a political bent. Here readers will learn about Reevaluation Counseling (RC), the New Alliance Party (NAP), and the now-defunct Synanon, The chapters on RC and NAP are the most useful in this section because they are still functioning. RC, sometimes also known as co-counseling, was a product of the 1950s. Founder and leader Harvey Jackins had been involved with the Communist Party, Maoism, and Scientology. What began as an innovative therapy eventually evolved into an openly political movement. RC “combines individual reemergence with a political action program” or the merger of what is called “liberation theory” and “liberation work” (p. 91). Purportedly, RC has approximately 10,000 supporters, despite decades of crises, splits, and sexual intrigue (p. 86).
Fred Newman also fused 1960s’ radical politics with 1970s’ New Age therapy to form the New Alliance Party and its practice called “social therapy.” Behind NAP is Newman’s secretive International Workers Party (IWP). NAP has been extremely active on the political scene for some time now. Members run for various political posts, from Lenora Fulani for President to all kinds of state and local seats. If nothing else, this chapter should alert readers to making sure they know whom they’re voting for in the next election. If you’re not familiar with a name, it pays to do a good background check and look for connections to NAP or any of its front groups or affiliates. Did you know, for example, that NAP has been identified with both the Reverend Al Sharpton (currently a Presidential candidate) and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam? Did you know that NAP formed the Rainbow Lobby just at the time Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was becoming known? Some people found this very confusing. Did you know that NAP and Fulani worked with Ross Perot and the Reform Party? Or that NAP has also worked in alliance with Pat Buchanan? In the authors’ estimation, one with which I concur, the New Alliance Party and its various mutations, front groups, and personalities are worthy of our attention. Despite its small size (probably no more than 100 members in all), NAP seems capable of ongoing interventions into U.S. democratic and electoral processes, while bringing (albeit surreptitiously) their cultic agenda to greater fruition.
Interestingly, NAP leader Fred Newman emerged out of the same political milieus as did Lyndon LaRouche, DWP founder and leader Marlene Dixon, and NATLFD founder and leader Gino Perente. Throughout the book, the authors bring to light these and other noteworthy connections between people and ideas. In part, such historical connections led the authors to conclude in the final chapter that Leninism itself must take responsibility for the growth of political cultism, at least on the Left. In sum, Tourish and Wohlforth assert that in our political organizations we must be on alert for the cultic symptoms of “authoritarianism, conformity, ideological rigidity, and a fetishistic dwelling on apocalyptic fantasies” (p. 213). They suggest also that citizens acquire “stronger awareness of techniques of social influence and greater skepticism toward totalistic philosophies of change” (p. 217). This is good advice at a time when we might expect a resurgence of political activity. The effects of globalization, economic restructuring, and recession, plus incessant and threatening geopolitical crises, may well spark a new round of public activism— either left or right, depending on one’s point of view. We would do well to study the groups, analogies, and lessons in this useful book.
A flaw in the book that troubled me at times was the authors’ occasional use of disparaging language when referring to cult members. Our understanding of these complex issues and interactions is not enhanced by referring to dedicated believers as “political automatons” (p. 204), likening them to drunks (p. 5), or describing members of religious cults as content to live “chanting their mantras and eating brown rice” (p. 205). Given that Tourish and Wohlforth seem to understand how uncritical obedience is engendered within a cult’s social environment, I was surprised to read such belittling descriptions and phrases. That said, I highly recommend the book to everyone who wants a complete library on the subject, to anyone interested in political activism and its potential risks, and to those interested in the cult phenomenon in general. This book could also be used in various college courses focusing on social movements, the Sixties, hate groups, British or American politics, and political movements and parties.
Kerry Noble’s first-person account in Tabernacle of Hate allows readers to see clear as daylight the linkages to cult phenomena that are described and analyzed in Tourish and Wohlforth’s book. Noble tells the story of his seven-year involvement with The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA). CSA was a racist, right-wing compound based in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. Noble describes the group’s isolation as a key factor in its evolution from a quiet, rural community church into a paramilitary organization whose goal was to overthrow the U.S. government. In spite of CSA’s separation from mainstream, and even local, society, the group was well-networked within the Christian Identity movement and depended on Identity literature and personalities to inform CSA’s developing worldview. The Christian Identity movement has spawned such groups as Aryan Nations, based at the time in Hayden Lake, Idaho; and The Order, whose members were indicted for holding up armored cars, counterfeiting, and murdering Alan Berg, a Jewish talk show host in Denver.
CSA leader, James Ellison, was founder of a Pentecostal church called Zarephath-Horeb, and CSA started out as the church’s paramilitary unit. Eventually, CSA became the public name and identity, to “symbolize our paramilitary function” (p. 100). In April 1985, while Noble was functioning as second-in-command, federal agents arrived at CSA property with a warrant for Ellison’s arrest for possession of unregistered automatic machine guns. Surrounded by heavily armed agents who considered CSA “the best trained civilian paramilitary group in America” (p. 22), Noble successfully negotiated a surrender and saved many lives, including his own. The book begins with this standoff scenario, then Noble goes back to describe how he got involved in such a group and narrates his own and the group’s evolution into extremists. Because first-hand accounts by top leaders of cults are quite rare, certainly this book is of value in that regard. Noble was privy to the kinds of information and decision-making processes that come only with being part of a leader’s inner circle.
Noble outlines what he calls an “extremist recipe” that will lead a benign group to become a highly controlled and potentially dangerous cult. His recipe includes three ingredients. The first two are (1) “a philosophical or theological premise, based upon discontent, fear, unbelief, hate, despair, or some other negative emotion” (p. 28); and (2) a charismatic leader (p. 33). The third ingredient has three parts: information control, often achieved through isolation and separation from one’s past; a Savior mentality; and a perceived enemy or feeling of having no options (p. 68).
The author’s chronological accounting, which also includes a fine selection of photographs, provides a fascinating view of the gradual process by which individuals become increasingly involved and committed, as well as how groups themselves grow and change. For each step along the way Noble describes the thought process (e.g., “We believed that God wanted our individualities to die, that our rebellion would have to go” [p. 51]), and the systematic mechanisms within the group that promoted personal behavioral and attitudinal changes to coincide with the group’s developing worldview (e.g., getting rid of “symbols” of the “rebellious society,” so that the men had to cut their hair short and shave their beards). Likewise, money was “collectivized” to support their “higher vision.” As the ideology became more closed, so did their lives.
Interestingly, at the start of things back in 1976, Ellison was known for his newly formed fellowship, for “helping young people recover from drugs or from cults like the Children of God” (p. 28). According to Noble, Ellison believed that such individuals were not only “basically discontent with society … [but also] would be easier to mold” (p. 28). In 1977 some good friends who had been with the Children of God (COG) invited Noble and his wife to visit this young community in the Ozarks. Noble was taken with the strong sense of community, so different from his life in Dallas, and the genuineness of the hard, manual labor done by the men there. Despite initial reservations about Ellison and some of his preaching, Noble and his wife decided to stay. Not too many months later, the couple who had invited them left Ellison’s community, saying that it reminded them too much of the bad things they associated with their earlier experience with COG. They urged Noble to leave also, but he resisted, believing that he was choosing to obey God by choosing for Ellison. Noble’s commitment intensified after this “test,” and Ellison drew Nobel in as a leadership figure, an elder in the group, and as Ellison’s confidant.
Tabernacle of Hate is fast-paced and full of action. The author provides some of the significant historical and developmental connections within the Christian Identity movement, including its origins, the links between CSA, its standoff with the government (which occurred on April 19, 1985), and the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City (which took place on April 19, 1995). This book will give readers insight into cultic development at many levels – from the leaders on down to the followers. Not all groups will become as extreme as this one did, but we can learn a great deal by paying close attention to these outliers at the extreme end of the spectrum. To his credit, Noble has a solid and healthy perspective on his experience. He doesn’t shy away from his own moral responsibility as a leader of a group that engaged in racist and illegal activities; nor does he hold back from helping us understand how such groups develop and thrive. Highly recommended.