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.


  1. Chick Corea is a Scientologist? Eeek. Maybe that’s why I could never enjoy any Return to Forever LPs.

    Comment by jschulman — April 12, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

  2. He still makes good records occasionally. I quite liked his Bud Powell tribute album with Roy Haynes et al and the Bill Evans tribute with Paul Motian. I think Ethan Iverson on his blog did suggest that his embrace of Scientology might have had something do with the change from the kind of music he played on his early classics to the kind of kitsch for which he’s better known.

    Comment by godoggo — April 13, 2015 @ 5:29 am

  3. Late 1970s, Passim’s coffee house in Harvard Square. Allen Ginsberg is performing his poem, “America” and changes a line to “America, when will you be worthy of your Boston Trotskyites?” Even with the “ite” suffix, I applauded, rather loudly, and Ginsberg glanced over at me and smiled. A memorable moment for me, and perhaps indicative of a redemptive one. Actually, I thought the “turn to industry” wasn’t unreasonable, but I was not going to leave a career I worked hard to enter and cared deeply about (public school teaching), until at least two industrial workers were recruited from “the turn.” That was my own personal yardstick. It never happened. The Boston SWP never recruited one industrial worker, much less two. I never made the turn to industry, thus guaranteeing my outcast status.

    Comment by Joe Auciello — April 13, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

  4. So the thing that make you quit worker party was that they want you to be worker? I don’t understand

    Comment by Quan — April 13, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

  5. Taking a job in a factory does not make you a worker. 90 percent of the people who did this eventually took jobs that they were trained for after leaving the cult.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 13, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

  6. Yeah but, let’s keep our perspective here. Scientology is a major corporate scam while the Socialist Labor, I mean Workers, Party is a minor working class, socialist sect.

    Comment by Robo Trot — April 14, 2015 @ 3:43 am

  7. In 1987, when I first moved to Boston area, I was approached by a man selling The Militant in Harvard Square. When he found out I was Iranian, he beamed a smile from ear to ear, saying, “We support Iran in the Iran-Iraq war!” He explained further that Iraq was the aggressor and the U.S. was backing Saddam. I breathed deeply (since I knew exactly where he was going), and informed him that at that moment, it was IRAN that was the aggressor and had been since 1982, when all Iraqi military had been ejected from Iranian soil and the momentum had shifted the other, and the Iranians were the ones who were the aggressors. I told him how Khomeini wanted to expand the Islamic movement all the way to Israel.

    Needless to say, the views of an Iranian socialist in exile were not all that appealing to him. He invited me to a meeting, presumably to set me straight, I have to assume. I went to the meeting, and during the Q & A raised the same issues as regarded their position on Iran, emphasizing that they were supporting a *theocracy* that was crushing the workers in Iran, implementing misogynistic laws, a regime that allowed for zero freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association, and a regime in which people like them would be summarily jailed, tortured and very likely executed just for being socialist.

    Needless to say, in their eyes I was just an Eye-Rainian know-nothing, who clearly didn’t understand imperialism!! They were all white and young and looked pretty smug. I left the meeting after the person leading the meeting cut me off and said that I was off topic, and such concerns had to be addressed at another time.

    As for their “turn to industry”, just a quick aside (since I too am a teacher): Teachers ARE workers!! The whole mechanistic leftover idea that 19th century-type industrial workers are the key to a socialist revolution is a fantasy. ANY social group among the dominated classes can spark the flames of a revolution, and for the revolution to succeed, it requires ALL workers of all types to participate. It is exactly that “copying” mentality (as in copying what the 19th century and early 20th century socialists and communists had done) of the western left that for the past seventy years or so has stunted any creative moves on the part of the U.S. socialists, even though for the past seven decades there has been plenty of social movements that have arisen, and for which the U.S. left has had zero ideas as to what to do.

    Comment by Reza F. — April 14, 2015 @ 11:37 pm

  8. I wish some Marxists would read Marx. It would make things much easier. Marx even specifically talked about which teachers were productive workers, which were exploited, etc. He also talked about key industries, essential and non essential labor, etc. Most Marxists don’t seem to be familiar with the life work of their namesake. Of course we can build from his work, critique it and even reject it, but we must first read and understand it.

    The biggest joke about the turn to industry was that a turn had to be made at all. Presumably a “socialist workers party” would be made up of workers, but that was obviously not the case. Hilariously Jack Barnes led the charge but never worked a day in his life.

    Marx rejected leadership positions in many groups because he wasn’t a worker, and he and Engels fought to keep middle class people out of the leadership of other workers groups. They blamed the strange trajectory of the American section of the First International on the leadership of middle class quacks and a lack of workers in the ranks. They insisted that the party be made up of a majority of workers and they even rejected some European sections because they were student groups.

    Trotsky obviously read his Marx but was also driven by impatience and his own middle class origins. He too thought that party sections should be made up mostly of workers but was willing to bring in middle class elements to start. He thought they would act “as a yeast” to grow the party but they ended up dominating it instead. This shouldn’t be a big surprise from a guy who pushed for “the militarization of labor” and the top down direction of workers by unelected middle class party bureaucrats.

    So James P Cannon ended up being marginalized and Barnes and his lover Waters ended up at the head of a publishing company that operates like a tributary sect with an all volunteer street team while they live in Manhattan Lofts and rake in six figure salaries. All sadly predictable.

    The few remaining true believers are left twisting in the wind trying to figure out why the workers don’t flock to their banners that proclaim support for the 60 year rule of the Castro brothers that destroyed the local Trotskyist and Anarchist movements, the FSLN that outlawed abortion and raised bus fares, the theocratic Iranian regime that smashed workers councils and slaughtered communists, the Vietnamese regime that murdered Trotskyists and banned their papers, etc. Barnes sends annual letters of support to the brutal North Korean hereditary dictatorship but this is somehow connected to the same “proletarian politics” that leads the SWP to support union organizing drives at Smithfield meat packing plants in North Carolina. And it’s pushed by middle class college kids who infiltrate factories to colonize the local workforce.

    Gee, wonder why this hasn’t been successful?

    An ounce of theory and a ton of practice.

    Middle class rebellions at most can help “perfect” capitalism. Marx wrote about this too. So the populist Occupy, si se peude and syriza events have ultimately led to naught.

    For the middle class left the workers never exist until they do, so a national miners strike in South Africa reverberated throughout the world and just last week a massive wildcat strike in Vietnam with the potential to go national scared the government into reversing an attempt to cut retirement benefits in a matter of days. Something the European left hasn’t been able to do for almost a decade even when in power as in Greece.

    These workers struggles born out of capitalism’s inherent contradictions are the battles were Marx’s work can be properly appreciated and applied to link up globally and create a world worth living in.

    Comment by Roberto — April 15, 2015 @ 6:22 am

  9. The so called “Turn” was in fact proposed in the mid 70’s by a dozen or so Chicago branch members in a position paper called the “Proletarian Orientation” which, if adopted by a sane leadership, would have scarcely resembled the Draconian monstrosities perpetrated by Barnes.

    The fact is once the NVA busted through the gates of the US embassy & raised the red flag the military side of the War was over. That was 1975. The wind was let out of the sails of the ant-war movement which was what filled the sails of the SWP.

    Most of the wind filling those sails by the end of the war were students & youth, not proletarians. Rightly some in the SWP, namely the P.O.,predicted a rightward drift into a sort of de-classed SANE/FREEZE type of movement so a turn toward industry was proposed to thwart that. These P.O. members were not only teachers, railroad workers, auto workers, factory workers but also professionals with supporters who were even dentists.for crying out loud so the last thing they wanted was what Barnes ultimately implemented — a Stalinoid boot camp of forcing members into heavy industry.

    Bottom line is Barnes cowardly booted out all the P.O. members then turned around and a few years later formulated & implemented essentially the same idea but like a megalomaniac dictator, not like a smart & sensitive leader interested in building a dynamic, multi-faceted, all inclusive Socialist Party with the breadth & depth necessary to overthrow a clearly rotten system racked with chronic war-debt related inflation, intractable unemployment & unbridled militarism.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 15, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

  10. Louis – you joined a cult, but not the best cult. the best leftist cult movement is undoubtedly Chairman Bob Avakian’s RCP USA.
    Imagine BA everywhere!

    Comment by dennis — April 15, 2015 @ 10:37 pm

  11. Sorry Dennis but Avakian & the RCP never actually made History like the SWP did.

    How did the SWP make History?

    Easy answer. Because without the SWP’s organizational prowess in the mid 60’s those giant, largely peaceful, Late 60’s marches on Washington, NYC & the Pentagon MARSHALLED PEACEFULLY BY THE SWP would not have been possible,

    Yet it was precisely those massive marches after the Tet Offensive in 1968 that COMPLETELY DEMORALIZED THE CONSCRIPT TROOPS which lead to the fragging of officers & the bankruptcy of the war in the minds of not only the soldiers but the public & worse, the Ruling Class.

    I repeat. The DEMORALIZATION OF US TROOPS,. which was attributable primarily to the massive US marches organized primarily by the SWP — was the largest factor in the ENDING of the US War in Vietnam.

    Nobody has ever denied this historical fact.

    Historically, Bob Avakian aint got shit on that score!

    The other lesser historical fact is the degenerated workers’ states of both China & the Soviet Union played a large material part to that NVA victory, I’d argue almost half, but that’s not the decisive other half, which was the utter demoraliization of conscript US troops thanks to those massive US marches organized & marshalled primarily by the SWP.

    Thanks to all the other kids, potential conscripts, who could be drafted but not even legally vote nor have a shot of Jack Daniels but yet were expected to get their balls blown off — you get the picture. “No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger” quoth the Black Youth of America who were 10% of the population but 20% of Vietnam’s casualties.

    it’s a damned shame that when organized poor peoples’ armies rise up angry against viscous oppressors there are no more workers’ states around to help them materially — but that’s another story that laments the crushing of the USSR & China through relentless Imperialist blockade, isolation & hegemony.


    Roberto @ 8 – Today, 4/15/15 – a million or so fast food workers picketed across the USA for a $15/hr living wage. Rest assured virtually none of them will be reading Marx any time soon. Their objective reality will have to hold sway. True their complaints Marx would have predicted, and successful predictions are the hallmark of science. Therefore the Socialist future may incorporate Marxian axioms but in no way will his or any other Marxist texts hold the workers’ movement hostage. Marx said that his insights about the workings of Capital were not to be considered Dogma but rather a compass or guidepost toward ACTION. Moreover Marx considered Marxism first & foremost the HISTORY of the working class, primarily their BATTLES in the CLASS STRUGGLE that wouldn’t otherwise be recorded if the ruling class victors had their way.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 16, 2015 @ 1:48 am

  12. Without understanding at least from the most advanced elements in those protests they will end up in a reformist dead end or possibly not even there. This is the lesson of history and it was precisely these lessons that Marx tried to bring out so that we wouldn’t be doomed to repeat the same circular battles that end up at best with reforms that will later be reversed. It’s not for nothing that US wages are currently lower than they were in the 70’s when adjusted for inflation.

    What we see in these struggles is leadership by middle class elements who do not have the abolition of capitalism as a goal. Self interested workers must take the lead themselves and pursue their own liberation to end capitalism.

    Every worker doesn’t have to read Marx of course. It would help if the leaders among the working class read his work. Those who call themselves Marxists do have a responsibility to read him but obviously most don’t.

    Comment by Roberto — April 16, 2015 @ 3:06 am

  13. btw Louis – did you ever have much to do with the Kasama Project? what happened to them? They always struck me as a post cult group; transferring their allegiance from Bob Avakian to Prachanda and the Nepali Maoists. It seems to me that their post cult group phased out as their ‘revolution round the corner’. They are perhaps looking for another cult leader to follow but can’t find one.

    There is something about Avakian, that is so cult like, even if I dont believe the RCP is a cult. Bob Avakian is the American Lenin, the white Malcolm X, the Gimi Hendrix of Revolution etc. Jesus came with a New Testament, while Avakian comes with a New Synthesis.

    The SWP can’t beat that. You can’t be a proper cult unless you also have a proper cult leader.

    Comment by dennis — April 16, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

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