Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 12, 2015

Scientology and the SWP: varieties of cult experience

Filed under: cults,religion — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Just as Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” helped to put a famous musician into perspective following the mannered and incoherent biopic “Get on Up”, he has come to the rescue once again with “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, another documentary this time about the infamous cult that bears little resemblance to that depicted in Paul Anderson’s equally mannered and incoherent “The Master”. Perhaps one can excuse Anderson for making a film that was purportedly not about Scientology if at least it was a good film. Not knowing that much about the cult nor much of a fan of Anderson’s self-indulgences, the film amounted to a sheer waste of time for me. In contrast, Gibney’s documentary that is currently running on HBO was totally riveting especially for someone like me who belonged to a political rather than a religious cult. When former members of Scientology discussed being “Disconnected”, a term for ostracizing those who give hostile interviews to the press or run blogs that expose the cult, I could identify completely.

“Going Clear” is a reference to the process in Scientology that is roughly equivalent to being “cured” through psychoanalysis. People who join the group are convinced that like the Oedipal Complex in Freudian theory, there is psychological baggage that we have carried around since early childhood that prevents us from a full flowering as a human being. What makes Scientology quasi-religious is the notion that the baggage actually predates our birth and is connected to cosmological battles that took place eons ago on planet Earth when our earliest spiritual ancestors (thetans) were seduced by the material world. As someone who spent a summer in a psychotherapy camp run by an orthodox Freudian in 1958 and a couple of years at Bard College studying Gnosticism, all this rang a bell.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard started off as a science-fiction writer so his business about thetans was probably no more nonsensical than much of the “Sky” based religions, especially Christianity that like Gnosticism absorbed much of the Neo-Platonism that was in fashion in Jesus’s day. When you combine a redemptive theology with pop psychology in a period of American history that was rotten ripe for the acceptance of that sort of thing, it is no surprise that the cult grew like wildfire.

Gibney’s film is two hours long with the first half devoted to L. Ron Hubbard’s career and the second to the rise of David Miscavige, the current leader of Scientology who has the pretty face and chintzy charisma of someone like Joel Osteen. Like Osteen, Scientology is a religion of “success”. If Osteen’s sermons are mostly about living a “successful” life by following Christ, Miscavige’s approach is also geared to “making it”. That is why it became so important for him to groom Tom Cruise as a figurehead. With his successful career and devoted fan base, what better advertising could there be for the cult?

This ties in to what appears to be Scientology’s orientation to people in the film industry, a sector whose personnel is obviously subject to feelings of inadequacy. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the actors I have known in my life only feel whole when they are imitating someone else. Except for the rare individual like Marlon Brando who saw through the film industry’s bullshit, most are like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Priscilla Presley et al: plastic people that except for the ability to memorize lines and become someone else on stage would languish in obscurity. It would seem that most of these show business professionals got into the cult relatively early in their careers when a security blanket was necessary to get them through the lonely and difficult journey of becoming a star.

What is a bit more difficult to understand is why director Paul Haggis became a member since he was capable of making films as thoughtful as anything that Gibney ever produced such as “In the Valley of Elah”, one of the few Hollywood films about the war in Iraq that departed from the flag-waving norm. Interviewed throughout the film, Haggis comes across as a thoughtful soul who should have known better. His decision to break with Scientology was prompted by their opposition to gay marriage, a stance in line with their belief that homosexuality was a sign of not being “Clear”.

In a fascinating section of the film that focused on John Travolta’s membership, it was pointed out that he is submissive to the leadership because they have damaging information on his gay identity that could destroy his career. That is the stick. The carrot is the powerful legal and PR machinery they wield that can be deployed against tabloids that go too far in going after Travolta.

As a high-profile critic of the SWP cult, I felt a strong affinity with a group of men and women who have taken their case against Miscavige et al publicly. Chief among them is Mark “Marty” Rathbun who operates a blog called Moving on Up a Little Higher. Rathbun was once the inspector General of the group, a job that monitored the membership for deviations from the Truth. Under Miscavige’s rule, Rathbun’s staff became much more repressive and began to function like the Soviet secret police administering “reeducation” camps that featured intense brainwashing exercises and corporal punishment. He is now considered Scientology’s Public Enemy Number One.

As I sat watching the film, I could not help but wonder what the big difference was between Scientology and the “legitimate” religions. Is there anything that controversial about the IRS’s decision to grant Scientology a tax-exempt status? Gibney’s documentary points out that this has enabled it to build a real-estate empire but is there anything really new about that? Queen Elizabeth is number one in the 15 largest real estate landowners in the world with 6.6 billion acres but Pope Benedict is no slouch at number 3 with 177 million acres under his control.

In terms of dealing with dissidents, as bad as Scientology is, I doubt that we ever have to worry about them killing ex-members as is common in the world of Christian sects. Some historians argue that the Fourth Crusade that pitted the Vatican-backed army against the Byzantine Church’s garrisons in Constantinople was as ruthless as any directed against Muslims.

During his long and controversial but illustrious career, Alexander Cockburn was labeled a Scientology apologist. As a reality check, I tracked down one of his articles on the cult and found it rather convincing. Besides sharing their antipathy toward Prozac (I found the drug most beneficial so on this I am at odds with the late great Master just as I was on global warming), most of his energy seems devoted to defending their rights to exist like other religions. Written in 1997, his LA Times piece titled “Scientologists Take Offensive in Reich Land” makes some excellent points:

Never get on the wrong side of the Scientologists, as I often say to Heber Jentzsch, with whom I have spent many interesting hours discussing the evils of the CIA, brainwashers, shrinks, the pharmaceutical companies, Time and other pet peeves we share. Jentzsch is president of the Church of Scientology International and is now much preoccupied with their great battle against German politicians.

To people who remonstrate with me for having truck with Scientologists, I always say that folks who hate the organizations listed above can’t be all bad, and that there’s probably more psychic oppression in every 10 seconds of the life of the Roman Catholic Church (or–let’s be ecumenical–the Mormons, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists) than in the career of the Scientologists since L. Ron Hubbard got them launched. Last time I heard, the Vatican (which has to OK every deal) was settling sex abuse cases against priests in the U.S. at about $1 million per.

Anyway, the provincial German government got up Jentzsch’s nose by being beastly to German Scientologists. They wouldn’t even let jazz player and Scientologist Chick Corea perform inside the country. In some German provinces, they won’t let the children of Scientologists into kindergartens. This is because Germans are constantly worried that unless vigilance is exercised, covert groups will take over the state, suck out their brains and turn them into zombies.

Jentzsch and his fellows have been fighting back, with considerable success. They ran big newspaper ads saying that the Third Reich is being revived. (The Nazis started persecuting Seventh-day Adventists before pressing on to the big task of killing all the Jews, gypsies and Communists.) There have been letters from Scientology supporters and adepts in Hollywood. There have been condemnations of Germany by members of Congress and finally some stern words about German abuses of Scientologists’ human rights from the State Department.

As I watched “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, I not only made comparisons with other religions but with the Socialist Workers Party that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Unlike Scientology, it was not a cult at the outset but only became one around the time I was ready to leave. I was uncomfortable with the new “turn to the working class” but just as much if not even more so by the willingness of the membership to vote for the turn without hesitation.

So fervent was the campaign and so deep the pressure to toe the line that I got up at a meeting of several hundred members in NYC and announced that I was “excited” to go to Kansas City and get a factory job even though I was crushed by the choice I had made. Unlike other members, however, I had inner doubts that would make it impossible for me to spend more than a few months giving the “turn” a try. Others found it so much to their liking that a life of poverty and political work that consisted of selling the Militant to indifferent workers was sufficient to keep them going for decades. I could barely stand six months of it.

The other thing that made me resistant to cult membership was my identification with the beat generation that remained with me even after joining the SWP. Although I joined out of political convictions that made me susceptible to the Messianic fervor endemic to the Trotskyist (and Maoist) movement, I always felt detached from the gravitational pull that lured many people my age to go on full-time and/or to live in semi-communal housing in which your social, political and love lives became entangled with each other.

In a way, I understand why people would join the Scientology Church or the SWP, leaving aside the radical differences between their beliefs. As has been the case since the days of the Gnostic religion, there has always been a tendency for people—especially those with the psychological weakness to feel estranged by the dominant institutions of class society—to look for moral support from others so disposed. Ironically, this is what made Bard College so appealing in 1961. It was a place where other pimply seventeen-year-old kids who loved “On the Road” and “Howl” could finally feel at home.

The one thing I got from my education there, however, was the lesson that you had t stick to your own principles and not bow down to authority, a point that was made repeatedly by Heinrich Blucher when he spoke about Socrates. It is the ultimate contradiction of revolutionary politics is that you have to continue to think for yourself while acting in concert with others. Once we assemble the forces that are capable of changing the world from top to bottom, we will finally be able to be “clear” for the first time in human history.

March 29, 2015

On the SWP’s turn toward Israel

Filed under: cults,Trotskyism,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

SWP leader Norton Sandler: “There is no Zionist movement today”

I had quite a few misgivings about writing this article since the SWP of the USA is such a minor player. Yet its Zionist evolution is of such a shocking nature and because so many ex-members—including me—have been so perplexed by it that I finally decided to put something together.

I very rarely write about this group nowadays but at one time it mattered a lot more to me. I was a member from 1967 to 1978 and at the time I left it had about 1500 members. Now it has around a hundred or so mostly aging (like me) cadre. I maintain a mailing list on the group at Yahoo that was originally designed to shunt discussions about it from ex-members off of Marxmail that really didn’t need to be burdened by such trivia. Ninety percent of our subscribers have no idea what the SWP was, even if at one time it was the apple of Leon Trotsky’s eye.

The Militant newspaper article that prompted this response appeared in the April 6th edition that was posted to their website yesterday. Titled “Israel vote marks political openings for workers, Arabs”, it celebrates Bibi Netanyahu’s election:

A strong vote for the Likud Party in the March 17 Israeli elections ensures the next government will continue to be led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The results reflect concerns of working people there that U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes the threat of attacks from Iran and the reactionary Islamist Hamas forces that rule Gaza more likely.

If you read these sentences in isolation, you’d think you had stumbled across a NY Post or WSJ editorial except for the boilerplate reference to “working people”. A subsequent paragraph under the subheading “Views from the Left” is even more ghastly:

Virtually the entire U.S. and Israeli petty-bourgeois left holds the view that a Netanyahu victory proves working people in Israel are hopelessly reactionary. Some were dismayed, others overjoyed at the result.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, heaped scorn on working people, writing that the election showed “the nation must be replaced,” and called for “general elections to choose a new Israeli people — immediately.”

The Times published a column March 18 by Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which supports the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel. “The biggest losers in this election were those who made the argument that change could come from within Israel,” Munayyer wrote. “It can’t and it won’t.”

He said he was glad, because if Netanyahu had lost, their boycott efforts would have been weakened.

Supporters of the boycott say it’s aimed at forcing Tel Aviv to end its control of the West Bank and its embargo of Gaza. But the campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map.

Now there are some good people on the left who oppose the BDS campaign, like Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky but the SWP is coming from a different place altogether. The notion that the “campaign provides cover for Jew-hatred and calls to wipe Israel off the map” is not the sort of thing you’d hear from Norman Finkelstein. Rather it reeks of Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz and Abraham Foxman.

When I was a member, the SWP was probably the most consistent defender of Palestinian rights on the left, with former left-Zionist group member Peter Buch a tireless speaker and writer of books such as “Burning Issues of the Mideast Crisis”. You can still see some anti-Zionist books on sale at Pathfinder such as Dave Frankel and Will Reissner’s “War Against the Palestinian People” but their analysis is at odds—obviously–with the current line of this sect. What you would expect from a group that has changed its line by 180 degrees is some explanation but none has been forthcoming. Of course, this is the norm for Stalinist parties but not one founded to promote Trotskyism. The adoption of such bureaucratic norms was completed a long time ago in the SWP even as it continues to pay lip service to Leninist norms.

By some standards, the SWP is even more egregious in dumping long-hold positions sans explanation than the CPUSA. Only four years ago the Militant posted excerpts from a document written by cult leader Jack Barnes for the 2006 convention that stated:

What the Israeli rulers are seeking to impose in order to consolidate Israel within borders of their own choosing is not a “peace process,” as it’s dubbed by liberals in the big-business media. It’s the consolidation of an Israel still based on the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian majority, together with the “right of return” of those of Jewish parentage—and only those of such parentage.

Only four years later, the Militant defends that “right of return”:

The point of the Law of Return, a key aspect of Israeli law since its founding, is not to foster religion, but to guarantee a safe haven for those facing Jew-hatred around the world.

That’s from another abysmal article titled “Debate flares in Israel over bill to set exclusive national rights for Jews” that appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue, one that also claims that Israel is “the most secular country in the Middle East”, a formulation that is associated with the Israel lobby. Israel is also flattered as the most democratic:

The 1948 declaration also promised Arab residents “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” While Israel was created through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws are widely used today by Arab citizens to fight discrimination in jobs, housing and government services, and for the exercise of political rights.

Palestinians see it differently. In a document titled “History of the Palestinians in Israel” published by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the authors state:

Israel never sought to assimilate or integrate the Palestinian population, treating them as second-class citizens and excluding them from public life and the public sphere. The state practiced systematic and institutionalized discrimination in all areas, such as land dispossession and allocation, education, language, economics, culture, and political participation. Successive Israeli governments maintained tight control over the community, attempting to suppress Palestinian/Arab identity and to divide the community within itself. To that end, Palestinians are not defined by the state as a national minority despite UN Resolution 181 calling for such; rather they are referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” “non-Jews,” or by religious affiliation.

In light of this, it is most telling that the Militant article refers to Arab citizens rather than Palestinians.

So what do we make of all this, a question more pressing for ex-members like me who not only spoke numerous times on Israel and the Palestinians at public meetings (my family was very pro-Zionist) but devoted time and money to an organization that we saw as principled and fearless on the Middle East.

The turn toward Israel seems to have begun with a spate of articles in 2006 that took up the question of “Jew-hatred”, a term the sect prefers to anti-Semitism even if it has no currency outside their circles. It was linked with some accuracy to a number of articles that had begun to appear blaming the Israel lobby for promoting a foreign policy that was inimical to American interests—the kind of article associated with realpolitik academics like Mearsheimer and Walt. Needless to say, such articles don’t constitute an ‘existential threat’ to Jews as if they could lead to concentration camps and all the rest. But you wouldn’t know that from hysterical articles such as “More middle-class radicals promote Jew-hatred”  that appeared in the May 15, 2006 Militant:

The dangerous logic of such arguments peddling Jew hatred (to say “anti-Semitism” would be putting it mildly) should not be lost on working people. Such conspiracy theories have been the stock-in-trade of ultrarightists and fascists—mortal enemies of the working class and its allies. Petras’s arguments also point to the political evolution of many middle-class “socialists” like him.

But this was just the opening act in the farce that would follow. In 2009 a startling article appeared under the title “’Zionism,’ its use today, not in 1948” by Norton Sandler. He blithely assures his readers that Zionism existed once upon a time but no longer:

The Palestinian population in the West Bank and in Gaza is approaching 4 million. Faced with these demographic trends, the majority of the Israeli ruling class has given up the dream of a “Greater Israel.” They are forced to opt for what they consider the only pragmatic solution—maintaining a majority Jewish state within borders of their own choosing. This is hardly the Zionist movement’s dream of an Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

This is really atrocious given the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Since the Jordan River is the eastern border of the West Bank, does anybody doubt that Israel’s goal is to expand settlements throughout the West Bank until it is effectively part of Greater Israel or whatever it is called? Sandler’s article serves as Zionist propaganda. Make no mistake about it.

Just a little background on Sandler’s article. He first used the formulation of Zionism not existing today in a talk he gave to a gathering of the SWP’s co-religionists in London. This prompted a letter to the paper by Joaquin Bustelo, a former member:

I think the position expressed by Norton Sandler in the Militant that “There is no Zionist movement today” is mistaken. This reactionary European colonial-settler national movement still exists, and has as its maximum expression the state of Israel, as well as organized expressions in other countries in the form of groups to organize or lobby for aid to Israel and so on.

Unfortunately, Sandler’s statement leads him to further say that Zionism “has become an epithet … a synonym for ‘Jew’ that helps fuel Jew-hatred.” This is a completely unwarranted concession to those who say any criticism or opposition to the state of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic.

Finally, while the Militant projects a “perspective” of a united struggle by all working people in the region for a democratic, secular Palestine, that cannot be a substitute for expressing unconditional solidarity with and support to the just national struggle of the Palestinian people, something which unfortunately is not mentioned in the article.

Joaquín Bustelo
Atlanta, Georgia

Of course, the Militant dropped the demand for a democratic, secular Palestine not too long after this letter appeared.

So how did this all happen? Is Israel paying off Jack Barnes, the cult leader? I doubt that any sensible state power would waste its money, especially on a bizarre sect that exists on the fringes of American politics.

The explanation is social in nature—or to put it another way, the lack of a social foundation. Groups on the left to one extent or another reflect social pressures. For example, the French Trotskyist movement in 1968 adapted to the ultraleft student movement. The CP in the USA adapts to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. It is through social interaction with a broader milieu that such parties formulate strategy and tactics. When a party’s social base is progressive, such as the Bolshevik’s in 1917, the results are salutary. When, however, it rests on a questionable social base such was the case of the Second International and the trade union bureaucracy in 1914, the results are disastrous.

Apart from such considerations there is the world of tiny sects that have no social base such as the SWP or the Socialist Equity Party or the Spartacist League. They tend to have a relationship to a great genius whose ideas are fairly unpredictable. It is worth mentioning that the SWP’s politics are far more capricious than the other two groups for the simple reason that its leader seems more unmoored from a stable base such as was the case with Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”.

Extending the flight metaphor a bit further, the membership of the SWP put itself in the hands of a pilot who was as mad in his own way as Andreas Lubitz. While nobody has died as a result of their membership in the SWP, it is hard to argue with the proposition that the party’s wreckage is strewn across the ground as a result of the megalomania and flawed analyses of its potentate.

February 8, 2015

How I stack up against my old comrades

Filed under: cults — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

From www.alexa.com:

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News from the lunatic fringe

Filed under: cults — louisproyect @ 12:16 am

Jack and Mary-Alice give themselves a raise (from 2013 tax returns):

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Jack and Mary-Alice discover that Keystone XL pipeline might not be a bad idea:

With pipeline transport as with rail, technology exists to operate more safely. Robots called “smart pigs” can detect corrosion. Control valves can be installed that automatically shut off the flow if a drop in pressure indicates a leak. The extent to which safety measures are used, however, is decided by the strength of the union movement and pressure from the working class more broadly.

The question for working people around energy extraction and production is not whether one or another method — from nuclear fission of uranium to fracking shale oil to mining tar sands to building solar panels or wind generators — has downsides and hazards. They all do. The question is how much control over the process can the working-class movement wrest from the imperialist ruling families and other capitalist exploiters on the road to taking power away from them and building a society based on human solidarity and the defense of land and labor in every corner of the globe.

The struggle to provide the energy toilers need worldwide to advance culture and fighting capacity is key to strengthening working-class internationalism and solidarity. And it goes hand-in-hand with rebuilding our unions to fight for control over working conditions on the job.

November 13, 2014

Full page ad in today’s NY Times for Bob Avakian-Cornel West meeting

Filed under: cults,Maoism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

This ad costs $70,000. Where does this cult get its funding, I wonder.

avakian

February 8, 2014

Jack and Mary-Alice get a raise

Filed under: cults,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 12:14 am

From the 2012 tax returns of the Anchor Foundation:

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The Militant (logo)

Vol. 77/No. 33      September 23, 2013
Workers send ‘on-time’ blood money
bonuses to SWP fund

“Blood money” contributions to the Socialist Workers Party Capital Fund have totaled $620 over the summer. The ongoing fund helps finance the long-range work of the revolutionary party.

“Blood money” is a term communist workers use to describe one-time payments from bosses — safety, attendance and production bonuses, contract-signing incentives, holiday gifts and other such bribes — intended to pressure workers to accept speedup, wage cuts, concession contracts and dangerous working conditions. Class-conscious workers turn them into contributions to the Capital Fund.

“Enclosed are two ‘blood money’ checks,” wrote John Benson and Janice Lynn, who work at a food preparation facility near Atlanta. Their quarterly bonus checks for $465 are based on the bosses’ tally of “productivity, appearance, on-time delivery, etc.” Their goal with the bonuses “is to try to get workers to work faster,” wrote Benson and Lynn. “The result? More workers with aching backs, wrists, knees, etc.”

United Airlines worker Eric Simpson from San Francisco sent in $90, from three bonuses the company gave him, “‘rewards’ to the workforce for ‘on-time’ takeoffs,” he wrote. “But ‘customer satisfaction’ with the airline is reported to be at 30 percent! Members of our union, the Machinists, weren’t too ‘satisfied’ with the latest contract the company proposed and we turned it down overwhelmingly. Send the companies’ ‘blood money’ bonuses to the working-class movement and get 100 percent ‘worker satisfaction!’”

To make a contribution to the Capital Fund, write to or call the Militant distributor nearest you. The directory is on page 10.

— SUSAN LAMONT

December 21, 2012

Cult leaders reward themselves handsomely

Filed under: cults,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

From the Socialist Workers Party 2011 tax records (found on guidestar.org under the Anchor Foundation).

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