Maoist 'slaves': Combating the fascist state in Brixton
Eddie Ford dissects the bourgeois media's hysteria over left wing 'cults'
We had a spasm of excited and often contradictory headlines after two people were arrested on November 21 by the Metropolitan Police human trafficking unit on suspicion of holding three women as “slaves” in a south London flat for over 30 years. The so-called ‘Lambeth slaves’ were a 69-year-old Aishah Wahab, 57-year-old Josephine Herivel (the daughter of a renowned Bletchley Park code-breaker) and 30-year-old Rosie Davies, who might have been born in the same residence. The two suspects, Aravindan Balakrishnan and his wife, Chanda, have been bailed until January 2014.
The police had been contacted by the Freedom Charity following a phone call it received on October 18 from Josephine Herivel - she decided to call the FC after watching a TV documentary about forced marriages. According to Aneeta Prem, founder of the charity - which seeks to “raise awareness and prevent child abuse”1 - Herivel lived there “unwillingly”. The three women, she said, are “highly traumatised” and appear to be “absolutely terrified” of their alleged captors. As for the “slave house”, a ground-floor flat in Brixton, it looked just like an “ordinary house in an ordinary street that wouldn’t raise any concerns with anybody else”.
For a while the story almost acquired the status of a moral panic. The Sun sensationally reported that the “enslaved” three women were “among the more than 5,000 captives in the UK” - though how it arrived at that figure remained a mystery. Similarly, home secretary Theresa May wrote in The Daily Telegraph that slavery “is all round us” - something must be done. Then the appalling Frank Field - the coalition government’s ‘poverty tsar’ despite being a Labour MP - claimed that the discovery of the three “slave women” was only the “tip of the iceberg” and recommended that the British government establish the post of an “anti-slavery commissioner”. Presumably he would be more than happy to fill the position himself.
However, it transpired that the story was not so straightforward - not by a long chalk. The women had not been physically imprisoned, restrained or hurt in any way whatsoever, which made them rather unusual slaves. Rather, we discovered that the two older women had met Aravindan Balakrishnan in the 1970s through a “shared political ideology” - as the police initially put it. Instead of being slaves or victims of human trafficking, the police now told us that the women had been held in “invisible handcuffs” - subjected to decades of “brainwashing and emotional control” by their supposed captors. As it turned out though, the “shared political ideology” - or “invisible handcuffs” - in question was actually Maoism.
As a few minutes on Google reveal, the Balakrishnans were part of the strange Maoist milieu of the 1970s, which still exists today in ever smaller and odder forms. But it is incontrovertible that Aravindan Balakrishnan - aka ‘comrade Bala’ - and his group out-weirded even the most weird Maoists of the time, promoting a crazy brand of secular millennialism that bore absolutely no relationship to reality. A complete fantasy world.
Hence Balakrishnan was the former ‘leader’, if that is not too generous a term, of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism- Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Even at the time most people on the far left considered him completely nuts. The origins of the ‘institute’, which at its height had about two dozen members, lay predictably enough in a split - the Maoists have always been able to show the Trotskyists a thing or two when it comes to the practice of parting company over ideological disputes. In this case the parent body was the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) - not be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) or the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). In August 1974 Balakrishnan was expelled for breaching party discipline, the CPE(M-L) issuing a statement condemning him and his “clique” for their “pursuance of conspiratorial and splittist activities” and because of their “spreading social-fascist slanders against the party and the proletarian movement”. The CPE(ML) and its few dozen members “repudiated the metaphysical logic harmfully promoted” by Balakrishnan in “opposition to dialectical materialism and the concrete analysis of concrete conditions”.2
Balakrishnan responded by setting up the ‘institute’ and launching his own publication, the South London Workers’ Bulletin - which vituperatively denounced his former comrades, and many others, for being “fascists”, “agents of imperialism” and so on. He doubtlessly felt his denunciations vindicated by the future evolution of the CPE(M-L), which decided that Mao was a “revisionist” and switched its allegiance to the staunch Albanian ‘anti-revisionist’, Enver Hoxha - becoming the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) in 1979.
When Balakrishnan’s “beloved” Mao died in 1976, the ‘institute’ opened the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton - running regular evening lectures, study groups and film showings. By all accounts, there was very little debate at these meetings and most of the discussion consisted of people parroting Mao texts - the members being “required to witness their beliefs at all times”.3 The centre operated as a commune with 13 members - mainly alienated foreign students - living on the premises.
The organisation became increasingly eccentric. Balakrishnan now assumed the role of Britain’s Mao. The central aim was to establish a “red base” in Brixton, chosen because it was the “worst place in the world”4 - therefore sheer desperation would force the oppressed workers into spontaneous revolutionary action. Indeed, declared Balakrishnan, “we have undertaken the unprecedented task of building the first stable base area in the imperialist heartlands” and this “new development” has “driven the British bourgeoisie up the wall”. Indeed, it has “taken the British fascist state by storm”.
Slipping further into lunacy, Balakrishnan prophesied that China’s People’s Liberation Army would launch a “revolutionary invasion” of Britain by 1980 - with the bridgehead being the liberated zone of Brixton, its jubilant population throwing garlands of flowers at the PLA tanks and soldiers. A ‘perspectives’ document in 1977 argued that the British population was moving in a clear “revolutionary direction”, reassuring us that the institute “successfully conducts vigorous programmes to uphold Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line amidst the mass upsurge in Britain”.5
Another report issued in the same year envisaged “political mobilisation” involving whole families free from “fascist rules and regulations”, in liberated areas. Perhaps the final descent into Maoist madness was an assertion that the international dictatorship of the proletariat had actually been “established covertly” in 1977 by “our party” - ie, the Communist Party of China. We are living under communism, but just do not know it.
Unsurprisingly, the institute came to the attention of various wags in the bourgeois press. The Times diarist in April 1977 reprinted some of the group’s material as amusing vignettes and it has even been suggested that this sudden exposure was the inspiration behind the BBC’s Citizen Smith and his Tooting Popular Front. But rival comrades on the far left had their fun as well.
The Mao Zedong Memorial Centre was often subject to police monitoring and a number of members were issued with deportation orders. Their persistent refusal to recognise the authority of the courts led to further harassment and imprisonment. Eventually the police raided the centre in March 1978, under circumstances that are still slightly mysterious, and it was closed down shortly afterwards. By 1981 the group had virtually disappeared from the political map. However, in ITV archival documentary video footage from 1997, a woman identified as Josephine Herivel is seen along with other members of the group angrily telling journalists to go away, as they were part of the “fascist state”.
In some respects, communists do not want to be too harsh on ‘comrade Bala’ - his original intentions were probably quite sincere, albeit in a totally mixed-up and hopeless way. But mad politics drives you crazy, as his sad story shows. Instead of ushering in utopia, his demented attempts to construct socialism in one borough, then one district - and finally one building - brought about the opposite result: a hellish reproduction of the same old crap.
There have been scattered insinuations in the mainstream press to the effect that the Workers’ Institute for Marxism- Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought is somehow a reflection of the far left in general - that we are all guilty of such behaviour to one degree or another. This is where communist politics ultimately gets you - the mad house and despotism. Stay at home and watch Strictly come dancing if you want to remain sane. Whatever you do, never get involved with loony lefties.
Yet, as we have seen, the entire far left knew that the institute was out to lunch - therefore it is stretching things to breaking point to draw any broader implications from the near comical activities of ‘comrade Bala’. That would be a bit like making inferences about the nature of Protestantism in general from the snake handlers. So far even the Daily Mail has not managed to link the Workers’ Institute to Ed Miliband and the Labour Party. Still, watch this space ...
Inevitably, there have been references to the grotesque Workers Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healy and the “rape apologists” of the Socialist Workers Party. Perhaps more interestingly, the name of the organisation formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party often crops up in this sort of discussion about so-called ‘cults’. Led by the profoundly uncharismatic Frank Furedi, the RCP long ago morphed into the Institute of Ideas, Sense About Science, Spiked Online, etc - not to mention having a seemingly permanent presence on the BBC’s insufferable radio programme, The moral maze.
However, it would be grossly unfair to portray either the RCP or most of the other organisations on the left in this light. This writer was a member of the RCP in the 1980s and found no cult-like or weird behaviour. An entrenched sectarianism, yes, married to grandiose ambitions like “replacing” the Labour Party - but that is a completely different matter. Rather, as I remember it, the general cultural and intellectual atmosphere was relatively relaxed and tolerant. My personal life was never interfered with so long as party obligations were met, and I was never bullied into obeying the ‘party line’ (though they did like you to dress smartly at all times). For the most part, comrades were positively encouraged to think for themselves and develop their own ideas. Hard for some people to believe, no doubt, but that is the truth.
Forget the Workers’ Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong- Thought, the RCPB(M-L) or other cranky Stalinoids wedded to an authoritarian wet-dream. Marxism is the politics and science of universal human liberation, which is eminently rational. By committing yourself to such a project you are becoming more human, not less.
2. www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/history/erol/ uk.hightide/cpestatements.htm.
3. SF Rayner The classification and dynamics of sectarian forms of organisation: grid/group perspectives on the far-left in Britain (London 1979); http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1349448/1/ D32160.pdf.
5. www.marxists.org/history/erol/uk.hightide/wi-report. htm.