An unpleasant encounter with the International Marxist Tendency (IMT): A former cultist speaks out
‘Not a party man. He who thinks a great deal is not suited to be a party man: he thinks his way through the party and out the other side before too soon.’-Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All-Too Human
Sit back. Hold tight. This is the story of how an idealistic adolescent bibliophile was won over to the cause of revolutionary Marxism, found himself in a Trotskyist cult for two and a half years and subsequently saved his soul by leaving. His redemption is still a work in progress.
Becoming a Marxist
How did a bright but brooding 18-year-old, full of intellectual skepticism and haughty contempt for his peers, find himself in a hysterical Marxist cult? An organisation demanding absolute conformity and the suppression of all critical thinking? Even now, I am still analyzing the process whereby I was led from the light of reason and virtue into the darkness of sullen conformity. One day, I may even write a book on the subject. For now, you will have to content yourself with this article, and others I have written on political cults here and here.
I joined the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) in the autumn of 2017, when I arrived at university. If I had been told just six months prior that I would end up throwing in my lot with a Trotskyist cult, I would have erupted into hysterics. What did a proud, Nietzschean individualist like myself want to do with a philosophy that I was convinced was founded upon slave morality and hatred of the individual?
The truth is that over the course of a year, I had been intensely reading left-wing literature. Past thinkers who exercised a strong influence over me included Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Carlyle. The best-fitting label I could have given myself would be that of ‘liberal-conservative’, though I had problems with it then and still do now. Indeed, it was my increasing skepticism towards liberal capitalism that led me down the dark path I ended up taking.
I had been developing my views on individualism with the help of the aforementioned thinkers, when it occurred to me that, in many ways, capitalism was just as detrimental to individual freedom as socialism was. Capitalism had reduced the creative individual to the slave of market forces. It had put a price on talent and virtue. It had dehumanised men and women by commodifying them. It had elevated man’s material possessions over his inner being. This was in fact at odds with the kind of individualism which I believed in. Despite a passing fascination with Ayn Rand when I was fourteen (which I have since grown out of for good), I decided that I was repulsed by many aspects of liberal individualism. Both Nietzsche and Carlyle were stern critics of the industrial capitalism of their time. Neither of them would have rushed to worship at the altar of the free market in the way that men such as Hayek and Mises did in the twentieth century. In many ways, I realised, the individualism that I believed in was fundamentally illiberal.
Reading Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’, I found Wilde echoing my thoughts in his elegant, mischievous prose. I decided that I had been hasty in repudiating socialism altogether. Perhaps Nietzsche was wrong to dismiss socialism as ‘slave morality’. Perhaps a form of socialism could be found that would achieve the ideal of the heroic individual that men such as Nietzsche and Carlyle had sought.
From Wilde, I began reading Proudhon, Bakunin, Stirner, Lenin, Trotsky, Bordiga and others besides. I re-read Nietzsche and paid close attention to those passages where he singled out industrial capitalism and liberal utilitarianism for vituperation. I read early Marx, and was convinced that perhaps Marxism could be reconciled to the more libertarian, individualistic socialism that I had in mind. I flirted with Stirner’s anarchism but was impressed by Marx and Engels’ ridiculing of Stirner’s arguments in The German Ideology. Before long, I was a convinced Marxist, albeit of a more libertarian and humanist inclination.
Discovering the IMT
At some point I discovered the website of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) on the Internet and began reading its articles religiously. I got in contact with them before I went to university, and by the time I got there in September 2017, I was ready to throw myself into the activities of the Marxist Society on campus. The organisation has plenty of Marxist Societies on campuses across the country, which are front groups for the purposes of recruiting to the organisation.
The IMT is the successor organisation to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which was the international group to which the old Militant Tendency was affiliated. It was founded by Ted Grant, the leader of Militant, in 1992, after he and his chief supporter, Alan Woods, split with the majority of their old comrades over whether to continue entrism into the Labour Party. The British section of the organisation is known as Socialist Appeal, after an old newspaper the American Trotskyist movement used to publish in the 1930s.
I still was not really a Trotskyist. I was sympathetic to Trotsky, but when I first joined I was still more of a libertarian Marxist. I rejected the idea that the USSR had been any sort of workers’ state, aligning more with the left-communist position. (I would later be convinced that this was wrong, only to change my mind again just before I left.) I was aware that the Trotskyist movement had split over this issue, but did not think it was a big deal. The IMT took the orthodox Trotskyist position that the USSR was in fact a workers’ state, and it was a big part of what differentiated it from other Trotskyist groups.
The Revolution Festival
For a couple of weeks before I formally joined, I was a ‘contact’ of the organisation. I was invited to the organisation’s Revolution Festival, which happens every October to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution. (That this actually happened in November according to the Western calendar is but a small detail.) The event is considered an important tool of recruitment by the organisation. Every year, it is heavily publicised by the organisation and the Marxist Societies compete to see who can get more ‘contacts’ going to it. Before I knew it, I had paid the necessary fee to go down to London for the event. Over the next few days, I heard talks on all sorts of issues by leading members of the organisation, giving the party line. I spoke up forcefully at every event I attended, gaining the admiration and respect of everyone who heard this impressive contact speaking. I even met the leader of the organisation himself — Alan Woods, who has been in charge since the death of Ted Grant in 2006. During our short conversation, he told me that all I had to read was ‘Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, then Trotsky, Lenin, Engels and Marx.’ He meant this only half-seriously; Woods himself is a cultured, well-read man, but Trotskyism has stultified his mind, along with the other members of his cult.
The whole atmosphere was redolent of cultism, though at the time my excitement got the better of any unease I felt. I had been uprooted from my natural environment and transplanted into an echo chamber in which everyone was repeating the same slogans and the same ideas. The rooms were decorated with banners and posters in bold red and black lettering. Comrade after comrade would stand up during each session and make ‘interventions’, repeating the correct line on this or that topic, to the approval of the leading comrades who gave the talks. Every evening we would go out to grab dinner and discuss revolutionary theory over slices of pizza and alcohol. (I personally was a teetotaler.) In such a buzzing, hyperactive social environment, surrounded by true believers, even the most skeptical contact would find their resistance melting. I was practically love-bombed over the whole two and a half days I was in attendance. I felt special. I felt, for the first time, that I had fellow-thinkers and companions, who were my age and shared the same passionate desire to change the world.
Joining the IMT
After the exhilarating three-day festival, I was sold. I became a ‘comrade’ and began paying ‘subs’, beginning with around £20 a month and increasing to at one point nearly £40 a month. I was that dedicated to the organisation. I threw myself into the routine of political education, branch meetings, paper sales, contact meetings and weekly events held by the Marxist Society for students on campus. This was all in the hope of recruiting and ‘building the organisation’. We were trained to see ourselves as ‘Bolsheviks’, working towards a 1917-style revolution in Britain, which our organisation would be leading. Everything we did was geared towards grounding ourselves in ‘Marxist theory’ (i.e. a very rigid and desiccated interpretation of Marxism borrowed from Trotsky and Ted Grant), raising money and gaining more members.
Upon joining, my ‘political education’ commenced in earnest. Anyone who joined was bombarded with our organisation’s literature — our paper, our quarterly theoretical journal, books from our publishing house, articles from our website — all to keep them distracted from reading anything that was not ideologically pure. The person being initiated into the ranks would end up absorbing each and every aspect of our doctrine.
At branch meetings, a comrade would give the ‘line’ on this or that issue, and it would be absorbed by the rest of us uncritically. We would discuss ‘contact work’, which I never got used to and found cultish. We would talk about how the last Marxist Society meeting went and plan for the next one. At the weekly meetings of the society, a comrade would give a talk for 30–40 minutes on this or that aspect of Marxist theory, putting forward the line of the organisation to a largely bemused and ignorant audience of students. Other comrades were present to make ‘interventions’ and affirm the line, deliberately creating an echo chamber in which our ideas predominated. Publicly, we were open to everyone ‘from Trot to Tory’. This was nonsense. Privately, we all knew that the main purpose of these meetings was to put forward our line and recruit to our organisation. Every cult has knowledge for outsiders and knowledge for insiders. Ours was no different.
Paper sales were another method by which members of the organisation were indoctrinated. We were kept busy and deprived of the time to think, and spent more and more time around other ‘comrades’, so that we were continuously absorbing the doctrine. Indeed, paper sales were seen as a useful opportunity to chat to contacts of the organisation. In terms of how useful they were in raising money/making recruits, the results were minimal, but we felt like we were making a big sacrifice for the cause.
Every March, at the end of second term, the organisation held its national conference. Despite the name, the average member had little say in what went on. The leadership controlled the agenda for the conference, making sure that only what it wanted to be discussed was on the program. A couple of weeks before the conference, the ‘perspectives’ for that year would be sent to all comrades. This was composed of the organisation’s analysis of that year’s political events and how the situation was likely to unfold over the course of the next few years. It was banal stuff, scraped from the pages of the Financial Times and The Economist, reworked and presented as profound Marxist analysis. Comrades were expected to take time out of their busy lives to read pages and pages of this dull, catastrophist nonsense masquerading as profound dialectical insight into the workings of global capitalism. I would be surprised if most people even read it. Those who did were encouraged to bring forward amendments, although the leadership would recommend which ones be accepted and which ones rejected. The outgoing Central Committee would present the same list of names (barring a few changes) for re-election, and out of loyalty, they would be ‘unanimously’ re-elected, and the perspectives for the coming year ‘unanimously’ adopted. Such a rate of voter approval would create envy in the most totalitarian dictatorships. Really these things were just a loyalty test, and were symbolic in nature.
We developed our own special vocabulary, which served to create a sense of difference from those outside the ranks. Robert Jay Lifton, the famous cult expert, called this ‘loading the language’. Never before have I been in an environment in which Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observation that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world’ proved more true. We called each other ‘comrade’ (a label not afforded to others on the left, but only for people who were ‘one of us’). We made cliquey in-jokes about dialectical materialism. Potential members were ‘contacts’. Talks or lectures on aspects of Marxist theory were called ‘lead-offs’. We were trained to think of ourselves as ‘cadres’, the officer corps of the future revolutionary army. We spoke of the future as ‘the coming period’. Our headquarters/national leadership was referred to as ‘the Centre’. We referred to the sect, with an air of reverence, as ‘the Organisation’. We spoke of ‘subs’ payments, our treasury was the ‘Fighting Fund’. Our full-time employees were called ‘full-timers’ or ‘leading comrades’, and were associated with moral authority and self-sacrifice. We planned ‘interventions’ at protests and events scheduled by the Labour Party, the trade unions and the labour movement more generally. We referred to our recruitment strategy as ‘finding the ones and twos’. We were promised, in the famous phrase of Ted Grant, that we would grow ‘by leaps and bounds’. We conducted ‘entrism’ in the Labour Party in the hope of achieving Grant’s vision of an organisation that would go from slow and incremental growth to rapid expansion and a mass revolutionary organisation. These perspectives were falsified in his own lifetime, but he never gave up hope, retaining his delusional faith in revolutionary socialism to the very end of his long and misspent life. By means of thought-numbing cliches, we helped to keep the flame of an 80-year-old faith alive — a faith with fewer adherents in Britain than ever before, a movement which has utterly failed in the tasks set out for it by its founders.
We were governed, as all Trotskyist groups are, by ‘democratic centralism’. In practice, this was a euphemism which meant that all comrades had to publicly defend every aspect of the organisation’s line, whatever they privately thought. This was an excellent tool for corrupting people mentally and spiritually and imposing intellectual conformity. It is also the reason why even minor differences have led to splits in the Trotskyist movement, since there will always be people headstrong enough to break party discipline so that they can freely air their views. If this means breaking with the organisation, so be it. Between conferences (which were stage-managed anyway), the leading bodies of the organisation had full control over every aspect of the organisation, including the line to take on day-to-day political events and what went in the paper and on the website.
In the run-up to the 2019 election, we were loud in our support for Corbyn. He was on every front cover of every paper for weeks, if not months. Before the election, we insisted that whatever the result, our perspectives were correct. If Corbyn lost, it was because of the right-wing media and Blairite sabotage. If he won, it was because his left-wing manifesto cut through the class divisions created by Brexit. Whatever happened, we believed that the working-class would become radicalised and move in a socialist direction. Our position was effectively unfalsifiable. Anything which transpired could be cited as ‘proof’ that only our doctrine offered salvation for the labour movement. Once all power was given to Alan Woods and the IMT, we would make the world a paradise.
Leaving the Cult
Inevitably I had doubts during this period, but I suppressed them. The more I seemed to doubt, the louder I proclaimed my orthodoxy. To everyone else, I was for all intents and purposes a true believer. Secretly, I grappled with self-doubt. Was I really one of them? Had I really left my old views behind? I was tormented by cognitive dissonance. Even in private, I began to convince myself that I was wrong on any given issue, and the organisation was right. Psychology tells us that if someone proclaims a belief in something publicly, they will bring their private beliefs into conformity with their public ones. I did not want to be a hypocrite — I sincerely forced myself to change my opinions, convincing myself that they were wrong. If I was ever confused on an issue, I would simply look for an old article on the IMT or Socialist Appeal website in the hope of finding a resolution to my difficulties.
Shortly before my departure, I developed serious doubts on a central question — the question of Stalinism. Trotsky had always argued that it occurred because of ‘difficult objective conditions’. The social and economic backwardness of Russia, and the failure of the revolution to spread, leading to its isolation, made the triumph of Stalin and his acolytes inevitable. The more I thought about this line of argument, the more unconvincing it seemed. It absolved Bolshevism as an ideology, and Trotsky personally, of blame for the resulting debacle. Was Trotsky not violating the principles of dialectical materialism? A dialectical view would acknowledge that there was a dialectical relationship between ‘objective conditions’ and the ‘subjective factor’ of ideology and personality that brought about Stalinism. Stalinism as an automatic product of Russian backwardness no longer made sense to me. After all, a totalitarian state is consciously built, even if by improvisation — it doesn’t sneak up on you unawares. Around the same time, I read rival accounts of what happened during the Kronstadt rebellion that shattered the veracity of the Trotskyist account in my eyes. I rediscovered the anarchist website that had initially helped convert me to socialism and read its critiques of the Trotskyist account of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.
I made the error of confessing my doubts to leading members of the organisation. The roof fell in.
As if that was not enough, I discovered criticisms of the internal regimes of Trotskyist groups from people such as Louis Proyect, Dennis Tourish and others. The ex-Trotskyist John Sullivan wrote a brilliant satire of the many Trotskyist sects in Britain, called As Soon As This Pub Closes. It was chillingly accurate. I knew that my difference of opinion over the Russian Revolution’s degeneration now raised a question mark over my place in the organisation. I dreaded having to leave the organisation to which I had dedicated two and a half years of my life — my entire time as an undergraduate. However, I knew by now that I was a member of an organisation that could legitimately be described as a political cult. Practically all Trotskyist groups are like this. I discovered that Trotsky borrowed from the Third International all the same bureaucratic structures and the same nasty internal regime that characterised Stalinism, including the same warped notion of ‘democratic centralism’. The result was that the Fourth International, and all its present-day descendants like the IMT and the American SWP, have become fossilised cults of a few hundred members, deprived of all critical thinking, and at the mercy of an unaccountable leadership that presents itself as infallible and all-knowing.
When I say that the IMT is a cult, that is not a term of abuse. It is a legitimate term used by social scientists to describe groups that share certain features. Among them is an ideology which claims to offer a total explanation of everything, an unaccountable leadership, a cult of personality around figures alive and dead (in the case of the IMT, Trotsky and Ted Grant), and the suppression of critical thinking among its members. No doubt my ex-comrades will dismiss this as ‘bourgeois ideology’, produced by hireling academics who are paid stooges of the ruling class. Alas, none is so blind as he who will not see. Such a response simply confirms that they are in a cult. The reigning assumption among such people is that if Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky did not sanctify a particular piece of knowledge with their approval, it is necessarily incorrect.
Needless to say, the result of my dissent was being forced to ignominiously resign. (In the future, I hope to go into more detail as to how I raised my differences and the reaction to them.) There was no question of my remaining in the organisation and having a different opinion on the rightness of Trotsky’s actions in the run-up to Stalinism.
Leaving was devastating. I was ostracised by all those I had worked with for two and a half years, most of whom did not even bother to ask why I had left. I walked out of the dark night of cultism, head spinning, eyes bleary, disoriented and disconnected from reality. The last several months have been months of recovery, and I get stronger with each passing month.
I am speaking out because I do not want other people to be ensnared by this organisation, or any other political cult. My ex-comrades will no doubt see this as ‘betrayal’, but they are the ones guilty of betrayal, not me. They are the ones guilty of lying to and manipulating vulnerable students into their ranks. They are the ones guilty of corrupting the youth by teaching them contempt for all viewpoints outside their organisation, and selling them the false hope of a classless utopia in which all of the complexities and difficulties of ordinary life will be finally resolved. They infect young minds with the toxic machismo of revolutionary violence. They teach their members to mourn more loudly for those victims of Stalinism who were party members than ordinary peasants and workers. They claim to believe in democracy, yet their own organisation is less democratic than the Labour Party and the trade unions.
They will also say that I am attacking them purely out of anger, bitterness and ‘petty-bourgeois’ emotionalism. The assumption of course is that Marxists are calm, rational and objective, whilst their critics are either cynical opportunists or despairing sentimentalists. By contrast, Marxists are motivated by nothing more than feelings of love and benevolence towards mankind. This, of course, is utter nonsense. Marxists are the most emotional people on the planet. Marxist sects create a frenzied and hysterical internal regime, awaiting with bated breath and chiliastic fervour the coming of the revolution that will sweep away all suffering and injustice forevermore — and one which their sect of the ‘chosen few’ cadres will be leading. There is nothing ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’ about such a belief. It is based entirely on faith. To sustain such wishful thinking, one must have an extreme emotional attachment to the cause. Moreover, Marxism as a political movement has only sustained itself by appealing precisely to the resentment and bitterness of the masses towards their betters.
I have nothing to fear from speaking out. Luckily, they are not in power and do not have the chance to operate a totalitarian state. Best to expose them now, whilst they are relatively powerless, as opposed to waiting until they are in a stronger position.
I am no longer a Marxist or even a socialist. I now realise that I am intellectually, politically and psychologically incompatible with Marxism, which is inherently inimical to a more libertarian interpretation. Reading Leszek Kołakowski’s criticisms of Marxism has convinced me of that. I do not regret my experiences, painful as they have been, but I do pity those I have left behind, knowing that they are wasting their lives in a cult. I can only hope that others follow my example and free themselves from the grip of cultism. After leaving, I found myself initially ambling, then jogging, then running, through the verdant meadows of intellectual freedom, and breathing the pure, clean air of free thought. I could not recommend it enough to any young person, for it is when one is young that one must learn skepticism. I am proud to be an enemy of the IMT, of Marxism and of any totalitarian doctrine which proclaims that it has the ‘final solution’ to all human ills.