Digital optimization from detail of a 1922 Ivan Simakov poster. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

Inside university Marxist societies

One student’s escape from a campus cult

Artillery Row

“The greatest stupidity of my entire life.” With these lacerating words of self-criticism, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger indicted himself for his misguided alliance with Nazism. Recently, I have had to come to terms with my own misalliance with the forces of totalitarianism.

Unlike Heidegger, I at least have the excuse of being young and naïve. When started at the University of Warwick in 2017, I was a passionate libertarian socialist, inspired as much by Nietzsche as by Marx. Within a few months, I was a brainwashed Trotskyist drone helping to subvert the forces of Western civilisation. How did this happen?

In the months leading up to university, I came across the website of the Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency (IMT). The IMT is one of two main successor groups to the Militant Tendency, which was infamous in the 1980s for its entryism activities in the Labour Party. Its leader, Ted Grant, split from his old organisation in 1991-2, and together with his chief supporter, Alan Woods, founded a new organisation, Socialist Appeal (the British faction of IMT). Grant died in 2006 and was succeeded by Woods.

Today the organisation has about 400 members in Britain. But its glory days are over: Militant had around 8000 members at its peak. Yet despite decades of irrelevance, its members are convinced that a 1917-style revolution is on the cards in Britain and their organisation will be the one to lead it. A healthy sense of conviction might be admirable, but delusion is not. Little did I know that I would be getting myself into.

The point of education is to broaden the mind, our intention was the opposite

Intrigued, I attended an event held by the IMT in London in September 2017 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Capital. I met leading members of the organisation and expressed interest in joining. I headed up to Warwick and threw myself into the activities of the Marxist Society. The IMT has many such “Marxist Societies” at university campuses across the country. Their purpose is recruit vulnerable young students to the organisation. Within a few weeks I was attending the IMT’s Revolution Festival in London, which is held every October to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. It is a flagship event and involved talks from leading members on various topics from a Marxist perspective. I now see that it was a classic cult recruiting tactic. The idea is to take a naïve young person out of their natural environment and surround them with true believers. This means pressuring them to purchase and read literature published by the organisation, having them sit through talks at which they are given the party line at length, and exhortations to join the organisation and “build the revolutionary party”.

It worked on me. Within a few days of the event I had officially joined the organisation. At the festival I spoke to the head of the organisation himself, Alan Woods. A charismatic polyglot and lifelong revolutionary socialist, he told me gleefully that I only needed to read four people: “Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and then Trotsky, Lenin, Engels and Marx.” The numbed intellectual environment of what we called “The Organisation” is demonstrated by this remark. All his life, Ted Grant preached an intellectually desiccated strain of orthodox Trotskyism that remains in IMT today.

This self-righteousness is to be expected in intensely ideological young people with no life experience

I settled into the routine associated with membership of a Trotskyist organisation: organising meetings, publicising events, paper sales, recruitment. At our weekly Marxist Society meetings, my comrades and I would give talks on various topics from a Marxist perspective. It was understood internally that the point of these meetings was to put forward our organisation’s line, not to engage in debate and discussion for its own sake. Of course, we did not say this publicly; we insisted that our meetings were open to all, “from Trot to Tory”. In reality, comrades were strategically placed in the audience to make interventions with our superior knowledge of what happened in the 1917 October Revolution, or whatever else was being discussed. The more ignorant other students were, the better. They were virtually empty vessels that we could fill with the sacred gospel. It is sickening to look back on it, but we were convinced that we already had the “correct ideas”, and there was no need to learn from anyone else. This self-righteousness is to be expected in intensely ideological young people with no life experience. For us, the answer to every problem under the sun was socialism. The Muslim Brotherhood has a famous slogan: “Islam is the solution”. For us, socialism was the solution.

At our weekly branch meetings, we would discuss recruitment; deciding who would follow who, ascertaining their “political level”, whether they were winnable, etc. I secretly loathed contact work and thought it was cultish and exhausting. Surely if people were serious, they would join our organisation without us putting in so much effort? Little did I know that this was standard behaviour for political cults. Upon joining, we would subject them to what we called “political education”. This meant bombarding them with our organisation’s literature – our website, our weekly paper, our quarterly theoretical journal and the books published by our publishing house – and discuss these at branch meetings. With little time or inclination to read anything else, they would gradually adopt our warped worldview.

Calling it “education” is a misnomer. The point of education is to broaden the mind and introduce the person being educated to different perspectives. Our intention was the opposite. It was to narrow the mind of new recruits and to get them thinking what we wanted them to think. As Richard Wright, recounting his experience in the American Communist Party in The God That Failed, stated: “An hour’s listening disclosed the fanatical intolerance of minds sealed against new ideas, new facts, new feelings, new attitudes, new hints at ways to live. They denounced books they had never read, people they had never known, ideas they could never understand and doctrines they could not pronounce. Communism … had frozen them at an even lower level of ignorance than had been theirs before they met Communism.”

We continued with the entryism tactic and gave “critical support” to Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds that he had the support of the most militant workers and youth, who could be won over to the cause of revolutionary socialism. The best way of doing this was to play an active role in the movement. Our belief was that a Corbyn-led government would face counter-revolutionary sabotage and resistance from the capitalist class, and that this would create radicalisation that would place our organisation in the vanguard of events. A 1917-style revolution would then ensue.

We overlooked Corbyn’s blatant unfitness to lead a prawn stall, let alone a country. Our response to the disastrous 2019 election was simply to shrug our shoulders and say, “The fight continues.” We got our excuses in early. If Corbyn lost, it would be because of media slander, Blairite sabotage, and Brexit. If he won, it would be because of his bold, left-wing manifesto which appealed to the working-class and cut through the divisions created by the ruling class. This meant that our position was effectively unfalsifiable. Whatever happened, Marxist theory would provide an answer.

Inevitably I found myself losing my sense of intellectual independence

Inevitably I found myself losing my sense of intellectual independence. I remember being under suspicion for my lingering sympathy with Nietzsche, who was seen as a reactionary. It was impressed upon me that he was, in the words of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, “fundamentally unsound”, and I found myself giving in to peer pressure and removing him from my pantheon of intellectual heroes. I had become the very thing I despised: a conformist. It was a powerful feeling that inevitably clouded my judgement and neutered my critical faculties. Such an emotional attachment is common to cult members, who cannot imagine an existence outside the comforting embrace of the group.

At the beginning of this year, I found myself entertaining doubts about the organisation. It all started when I began questioning our position on the Russian Revolution. The Trotskyist line on the Russian Revolution is that Stalinism came about entirely as a result of objective conditions (e.g. economic backwardness, civil war, imperialist encirclement), rather than Bolshevik ideology or the mistakes of individuals like Lenin and Trotsky. When I began reading more about the Bolsheviks’ actions in the months immediately after the seizure of power, it became clear that Bolshevik authoritarianism preceded the civil war and that many of the Bolsheviks’ actions can be traced directly to Bolshevik ideology. The Trotskyist explanation for Stalin simply served to absolve Bolshevism and Trotsky of any blame for the ensuing Stalinist dictatorship.

I soon moved on to questioning the “Leninist” concept of revolutionary organisation. Present-day Leninist sects like the IMT are run based on “democratic centralism”. Professor Dennis Tourish, who co-wrote a book on political cults with former Trotskyist leader Tim Wohlforth, has written extensively on the relationship between “democratic centralism” and the cultic aspects of far-left organisations. Its purpose is to ensure ideological homogeneity, giving leaders the ability to police the thoughts of the membership. Each member is under party discipline to uphold the organisation’s line on every issue. Dissidents are expected to “keep quiet” about their views or leave the organisation. Reading criticisms of this organisational model on the Internet led me to the heart-breaking realisation that I had found myself in such an organisation.

Frank S. Meyer, in The Moulding of Communists: The Training of the Communist Cadre (1961), describes the cognitive dissonance felt by the Communist cadre-in-training, who finds themself caught between the desire to think independently and pressure to conform to the party line. Either the cadre will come out stronger and more willingly subservient, or they will prove “weak”, buckle and break ranks. I was to prove the latter. With great bravery, I brought up my heretical views to the powers-that-be. It was made clear that I had two choices – to cease my heresy or leave. This confirmed for me that I was indeed part of a cult. I chose to leave. The result was as it usually is with leaving a cult – ostracism and demonisation. But I knew I was right.

I have chosen Nietzsche over Marx

Upon leaving the organisation, I spent the next few months reading and thinking. I rediscovered old intellectual heroes, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Christopher Hitchens, that peer pressure had compelled me to abandon. I still considered myself a Marxist and became interested in libertarian Marxism. This involved perusing the works of E.P. Thompson, the great anti-Stalinist Marxist and historian, among others. I also began reading the work of Roger Scruton, in particular his brilliant book The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope (2010), and discovered a new hero, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, whose writings convinced me that Stalinism was not an aberration from Marxism, but the logical conclusion of it. I could no longer believe the concept that libertarian Marxism was possible.

My experience in the IMT has been the most bizarre and traumatic of my life. But I cannot say I regret it. I have learned a lot. As Nietzsche says, there is benefit in “going among fanatics”. At least I now know that I am incompatible with Marxism. Not only do I believe Marxism is false, but I am relieved that this is the case. I have chosen Nietzsche over Marx. I have experienced first-hand the perils of absolute certainty. I am now opposed to all those that preach that they alone have the “correct ideas”. Christopher Hitchens said that, after various political allegiances, his main allegiance was ultimately on the side of those who doubt and are in opposition to all forms of totalitarianism, political or religious.

This concept, with its eloquent wisdom and humility, is the basis on which I now intend to live by. It is precisely when one is young that one must learn to fight against forces that threaten to stifle one’s mind. I have thrown off the “mind-forged manacles” of utopian lunacy and I am much better for it. I will die a romantic individualist, a freethinker, and an enemy of absolutism in all its forms.

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