Devotion to dogma
Sadly, notes Eddie Ford, political madness is not confined to the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought
Carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
Last week the 75-year-old Aravindan Balakrishnan (aka ‘comrade Bala’) was sentenced to 23 years in jail for a string of offences, including rape, sexual assault, child cruelty and false imprisonment - the last two charges relating to his daughter, Katy Morgan-Davies, who is now 33.
The court heard how the leader of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought - such as it was - operated a “dehumanising and degrading” domestic regime, terrifying his small coterie of female followers (or subjects) into thinking he could read their minds and had “god-like” powers. These powers involved mastery of ‘Jackie’ (Jehovah, Allah, Christ, Krishna, Immortal Easwaran), and an “electronic satellite warfare machine” built by the Communist Party of China/People’s Liberation Army, which could strike them dead if they ever stepped out of line. Balakrishnan also claimed that it was a challenge to his leadership that had resulted in the 1986 space shuttle disaster.
All this is perhaps not quite so surprising when we discover that Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein were - in the words of Morgan-Davies - his “his gods and his heroes” that he wished to “emulate”: therefore you “couldn’t criticise them”. Indeed, according to her, her father was using the sect or collective as a “pilot unit” to learn how to control people before taking over the world - presumably appointing himself as global revolutionary dictator. But so great were his delusions, revealed Morgan-Davies, that at times he worried that Mao and the others might act as a “rival to him” - when instead they should be “secondary to him”, as he wanted to be “bigger than all of them”. We are also informed that he wished three million had died in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Balakrishnan raped two women on the basis that he was “purifying them” of the “bourgeois culture” in the outside world, the jurors were told. He began sexually abusing his first victim when his wife, Chandra, was in a diabetic-induced coma. She met him at a demonstration when she was 23, saying he “had the air of an important man with authority” and quickly became entranced by him. The other victim was a Malaysian nurse who initially found Workers’ Institute meetings “welcoming and friendly”, but was repeatedly sexually assaulted over a 10-year period.
During the trial, Morgan-Davies detailed how she was regularly beaten and prohibited from going to school or making friends - she never played with another child and if visitors came to the house she was hidden away. Nor did she ever see a doctor or dentist. Balakrishnan told her that the front door had to be locked at all times to keep out the “fascist agents” planted amongst the neighbours and people living around them. Morgan-Davies was so lonely that she would talk to the taps in the bathroom, and tried to make friends with the rats and mice that scuttled into the kitchen. She felt like a “caged bird with clipped wings” and is still “terrified” of “saying the wrong thing”, having spent her entire life feeling “small, stupid and inadequate”.
Originally she was told she was a “waif”, but later found out that she was actually the daughter of a Balakrishnanite, Sian Davies (aka ‘comrade Sian’). The latter died under unknown circumstances in 1997, falling from a window on Christmas Eve. Morgan-Davies recalls hearing screaming and shouting on that night, seeing Sian Davies lying in a pool of blood below the bathroom window and pleading with Balakrishnan to kill her (an open verdict was declared). Sian Davies was not allowed to hug or breastfeed her daughter because she was “collective property”.
Morgan-Davies said she was forced to record everything she did in minute detail in her diaries, including exactly what she ate and her visits to the lavatory. She noted a daily percentage of how much her “lord and master” loved or hated her - ie, “Comrade Bala loves me 40%” or “hates me 60%” - and “Comrade Bala says I am 89% super-idiot”. She became “number one criminal” for making up words, which only Balakrishnan had the right to do, because he was the “natural centre of all things”. Another diary entry recounts how “Comrade Bala” took her into the garden and told members of his collective to “beat her” if she cuddled them.
In the end, Morgan-Davies managed to escape after memorising the number for an anti-slavery charity she saw on television. Encouragingly, she has now developed an interest in actual politics and joined the Labour Party.
Though obviously guilty of serious offences, it is open to doubt as to whether it was just or humane to give a 75-year-old man a 23-year jail term. Particularly when you take into account Morgan-Davies’s opinion that Balakrishnan was a “narcissist and a psychopath” - an assessment essentially shared by the examining psychiatrist and mentioned by the judge in her summing up. His total lack of remorse or, seemingly, even any awareness that he was in trouble should be taken more as evidence of a serious personality disorder than as justification for an excessive punishment perhaps more appropriate for a multiple killer - surely hospital treatment is what the situation called for.
Leaving that aside for now, there is no doubt that his Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought was a very strange organisation right from the very beginning - never mind where it eventually ended up. In fact, Steve Rayner, now the James Martin professor of science and civilisation at Oxford University, focused on the group as part of his doctoral research on the organisational dynamics of the British far left and their propensity to entertain millenarian ideas of social change.1
In 1974 Balakrishnan was expelled from the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) for “splittist activities” and “opposition to dialectical materialism”. In return, he scornfully called them the “Communist Party of Elizabeth (Most-Loyal)” and set-up the rival ‘institute’ - also launching his own publication, the South London Workers’ Bulletin, which never missed an opportunity to vehemently denounce his former comrades of the CPE(M-L), and just about everybody else, for being “fascists”, “running dogs”, “agents of imperialism” and so forth.2
After the death of the “beloved” Mao in 1976, the ‘institute’ opened the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton and went out on demonstrations carrying placards of his successor, Chairman Hua Guofeng - until he fell out of favour with the majority faction in the bureaucracy after four short years and was ousted by the clique around Deng Xiaoping.3 Balakrishnan’s group now regarded itself as a “component” of the Communist Party of China, arguing that the CPC and Mao were on the “verge of launching the final offensive” to “dismantle the old world of colonialism, imperialism and hegemonism and build the new world of socialism”.4
The ‘institute’ started to produce spectacular leaflets predicting the overthrow of the “British fascist state” and the beginnings of the “world revolution” led by the CPC/PLA. In fact, we learnt, the PLA would launch a “revolutionary invasion” of Britain by 1980 - the bridgehead being the liberated zone of Brixton. This was the “first stable base area in the imperialist heartlands”, where whole families were free from “fascist rules and regulations” - a fact, Balakrishnan assured his followers, that has “driven the British bourgeoisie up the wall”. Developing the theme, a ‘perspectives’ document from 1977 confidently stated that the British population was moving in a clear “revolutionary direction” - primarily thanks to the Workers’ Institute “successfully” conducting “vigorous programmes to uphold Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line amidst the mass upsurge in Britain”. And if you went to certain pubs in Brixton at this time, occasionally someone might get on a table and wave the Little Red Book about.
Much to the mirth of the left, and showing the final descent into complete lunacy, Balakrishnan’s group asserted that the “international dictatorship of the proletariat” had been “established covertly” in 1977 by “our party” - ie, the CPC. You are actually living under socialism: it’s just that you don’t know it yet. The fact that a diarist in The Times reprinted some of the group’s material that year for the amusement of its readers only proved to Balakrishnan that the “hired scribes of the bourgeoisie” and “their masters” are “well aware of the danger of the rapid growth and development of the Workers’ Institute in the past four years to their class interests”. Maoists are, of course, renowned for their sense of humour.
Unsurprisingly, the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre was subject to constant police monitoring and a number of members were issued with deportation orders - their persistent refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the courts led to further harassment and imprisonment. Eventually, under circumstances that still have not been satisfactorily explained, the police raided the centre in March 1978 and it was closed down shortly afterwards. For a short period afterwards, meetings were held at the University College London Union, but by 1981 the ‘institute’ had effectively gone underground - apparently it moved some 15 times to different addresses in south London.
On one level, Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the ‘official’ Communist Party of Britain, was quite right to say a few years ago that “if one were to be brutally honest” the Workers’ Institute “were more of psychiatric interest than political interest”, as they “had nothing to do with the mainstream leftwing and communist politics of the day”.5 Balakrishnan himself clearly suffers from a severe mental health problem, and even in the 1970s most people on the far left considered him and his ‘institute’ to be totally nuts.
Then again, on another level, Griffiths is quite wrong - mad politics drives you crazy, not the other way round. In certain respects, the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought and its devotion to dogma is a representative example of the British left - albeit in an extreme or concentrated form. Take Gerry Healey’s Workers Revolutionary Party - not as mad as the Workers’ Institute, true, but not far off it and arguably more destructive. You can see obvious similarities not only with regards to sexual abuse and rape, but also when it comes to promoting a world view which is patently false. When the WRP first came out with its line that we were living under a Bonapartist dictatorship and on the edge of a military coup - so sleep with your boots on as the revolution is about to happen - you might have conceded generously that, whilst the comrades were wrong, it was worth having a discussion about it. But to repeat the same thing 20 or 30 years later is just madness. Healey and the then WRP leadership may not have been clinically insane, but they were definitely socially insane.
Not entirely dissimilarly, there is the Socialist Workers Party and its frighteningly bureaucratic internal regime. It may not have had a Gerry Healey or an Aravindan Balakrishnan, but it certainly had comrade Delta - and at first the apparatus automatically rallied around him, attempting to protect him from accusations of sexual abuse. Or how about when our SWP comrades told us that the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 was an “extreme form of the downturn”? You could hardly make it up. Dogma run amok.
Then there is the Socialist Party in England and Wales - which after years of deep entryism, suddenly told us in 1991 that the Labour Party was now a bourgeois party pure and simple. Of course, that was totally wrong - but, in the circumstances when SPEW’s predecessor, the Militant Tendency, was being driven out by the right, it was to a degree understandable. But not to say that they got it wrong now, when Labour has its most leftwing leadership ever under the Corbyn-McDonnell team, is another example of ideological and social ‘madness’.
For that matter, what about the CPB itself? Its programme, Britain’s road to socialism, would have us believe that “China’s communists” have “placed greatest emphasis on economic and social development” - so “state power is being used to combine economic planning and public ownership with private capital and market mechanisms, with the aim of building a socialist society in its primary stage”. Sheer fantasy. If Robert Griffiths really believes that, then he is only a few steps removed from the delusions of ‘Comrade Bala’.
In other words, ‘political madness’ is not confined to the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.
What the left desperately needs is theory that can be tested against reality. Theory that is open to criticism and open to change - and sometimes to abandonment. Getting things wrong is not a crime: the world is a very complex place, after all. But to keep repeating an established error is a crime - a crime against Marxism in any case.
1. ‘The classification and dynamics of sectarian forms of organisation: grid/group perspectives on the far-left in Britain’: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1349448/1/D32160.pdf.