A little-explored sector of the cult world is the political cult. Those who join such cults are usually seeking to change society in some fundamental way — right or left — and are thereby willing to make great sacrifices to attain their lofty goals. This idealistic commitment is abused by political cult leaders who skillfully exploit the members’ desire to serve. This paper, adapted from a work-in-progress, dissects the founding and development of a now defunct political cult. The article shows how thought reform was achieved through the group’s indoctrination and training methods, carried out under the pretense of “working for the greater good,” and details specific manipulative techniques that served to create and uphold a cultic environment and a harsh and exclusionary life-style.
We are believers. Not as you are. We do not believe either in God or in men. We manufacture gods and we transform men. We believe in Order. We will create a universe in our image, without weakness, a universe in which man, rid of the old rags of Christianity, will attain his cosmic grandeur, in the supreme culmination of the species. We are not fighting for a regime, or for power, or for riches. We are the instruments of fate.
–from Training of the Cadre
a Workers Democratic Union training manual
What vileness would you not commit to
Could you change the world, for what
would you be too good?
Who are you?
Sink into the mud,
embrace the butcher, but
change the world: it needs it.
–Song of the Controlchorus
from Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Massnahme”
We do not indulge faults, we rectify them; we do not justify errors, we overcome them. Ours is a hard calling and a stern discipline: it is also liberation.
–Doreen Baxter, General Secretary
Workers Democratic Union
In late October 1985, some one hundred members of a 12-year-old political organization met in San Francisco and voted unanimously to expel their leader and to dissolve their organization. This vote, taken by the full membership of the Workers Democratic Union (WDU), came after two weeks of intense, highly emotional, and revealing discussions among the members, mostly current, some former. For the first time in 12 years these political activists talked openly about the true nature of their organization’s leadership, of their work together, and of the effects both on the participants and on those around them.
The Workers Democratic Union was a feminist, Marxist-Leninist party, founded and led by women. Its members were highly dedicated, hardworking, intelligent women and men. Of those present for this final vote, ages ranged from mid-twenties to early seventies; most had some college education, with numerous undergraduate degrees, several Ph.D.’s, and a few medical doctors and lawyers; class backgrounds varied from lower working class to those of extreme wealth; the racial composition was overwhelmingly white, with but a handful of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian members.
At its peak membership, the WDU claimed about five hundred members, with several thousand supporters in its orbit, including influential and well-known intellectuals, professionals, and politicians. Despite sporadic periods of growth in membership, the party’s core of full-time cadre never exceeded 125 and was a group that remained more or less constant. Interestingly, most of these cadres joined during the years following the WDU’s founding (1975-1978), which proved to be the period of the most intense study and indoctrination. It is these same people who comprised the vast majority of those present for the group’s dissolution in late 1985.
The dissolution meetings were precipitated by frank discussions within the current leadership body, or inner circle, during the absence of the leader. After mutual acknowledgment of the state of affairs within the organization, these leading cadres called together the membership in San Francisco, the locale of the WDU’s headquarters and therefore of the largest body of members. One by one leadership figures presented the behind-the-scenes reality of the WDU, exposing in no uncertain terms the corrupt and abusive nature of their until-then adored leader, Doreen Baxter. Unprecedented meetings soon included all members called in from party offices around the country, as well as some former members who had been expelled over the years. Shock, dismay, disbelief, revulsion, sorrow, anger — emotional trauma of every sort spread throughout this group of dedicated political activists as they heard an array of chilling accounts from one another. Overnight a dream was shattered.
During these meetings WDU members came to see that their commitment had been manipulated, abused, and distorted; their leader was alcoholic, arbitrary, and without accountability; and, as a result, their organization was politically bankrupt. Some members haltingly spoke of it as a cult experience; others saw it as an aberration of Marxism-Leninism; yet others were too stunned by the onslaught of information to venture any analysis whatsoever.
A Cult of the 1970s
The purpose of this paper is to examine certain questions in relation to the Workers Democratic Union. These are (1) how did such a group come into existence; (2) how did the group via its leadership come to dominate its members in such a totalistic fashion; and (3) why, after almost 12 years of existence, did it fall apart?
Recent work by those who specialize in the study of cults, or cultic experiences, has shown the necessity of looking at all groups on a continuum and then using an ethical standard in judging a particular group’s behavior. In their very clarifying and practical study, Lisman and Tanenhaus (1988), in an effort to help counteract the buzz-word effect of the cult label, state:
Every group by its nature will exhibit some degree of restrictiveness and fall on the continuum from benign to destructive and totalistic. The degree, depth, and intensity of thought reform techniques, unethical rationale and behavior, and the range of destructive effects are all factors in the assessment of groups. (p. 54)
By looking at “how deception, emotional manipulation, and coercive persuasion [were] applied [in order] to undermine autonomy, critical thinking, free choice, family relationships, and the overall well-being of people” (pp. 45-46), it becomes apparent in an examination of the WDU that as a group it falls well on one end of the scale.
In the final analysis, I wish to place the WDU firmly on the extreme end of the “restrictive group” continuum. From as early as the founding year, evidence shows that the WDU was a cult exhibiting highly restrictive tendencies, with destructive effects on the members, and generally negative, and sometimes harmful, consequences for those within its reach.
The resources used for this examination are WDU training manuals and study notes, published party literature, news articles, unpublished papers and letters written by former members, conversations and interviews with former members and founders, and my own 10-year experience as a full-time WDU member, primarily in leadership positions. For the purposes of this paper, I use pseudonyms for the name of the group as well as for the leader and all former members when describing events and citing information or direct quotations. Also, I use the terms “organization,” “group,” and “party” interchangeably throughout.
This paper outlines the founding of the WDU in the context of its moment in American history, highlighting Doreen Baxter’s role as the charismatic leader. The WDU’s first year (mid-1974 to mid-1975) surfaces as extremely pivotal to all that followed. In that year, all the norms, structures, and behavioral patterns were put into place by Baxter, who became and remained the group’s supreme leader, the General Secretary. The type of person who joined the WDU, in particular during the early years, and the intensity of the recruitment and training processes are reviewed. The physical and psycho-logical violence used to manipulate and intimidate members is explored here, as well as the role of the second-in- command and the necessity for other levels of leadership to maintain the status quo. The paper ends with a brief description of and some theories on the group’s demise in late 1985.
In his study of totalistic environments, Robert Jay Lifton (1987) defined the characteristics he sees as common to a cultic situation. They are
1) a charismatic leader who . . . increasingly becomes the object of worship;
2) a series of processes that can be associated with “coercive persuasion” or “thought reform”; and
3) the tendency toward manipulation from above . . . with exploitation — economic, sexual, or other — of often genuine seekers who bring idealism from below. (p. 211)
All of these existed in the WDU — with Baxter as the leader and with the group’s acceptance of and intensive use of psychological pressuring techniques meant to mold the individual into the “cadre ideal” fighting for a better world. Baxter’s success in building the organization, in capturing idealistic followers, and in attaining some of the group’s goals was due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was the link to feminism.
“Our Secret Weapon”
Unlike many other radical groups of the early 1970s, the WDU, because of Doreen Baxter’s leadership, had solid grounding in feminism Marxism. Baxter professed to author a new kind of Marxism — feminist, working class, and nondogmatic — with a particular emphasis on the revolutionary role of women in advanced capitalist society. As leader of the WDU, she became the ultimate arbiter of what qualified as feminist or sexist, proletarian or bourgeois, moral or immoral.
Baxter’s feminist theories, coupled with the fact that the group was founded and led by women, were a motivating force in the group’s formation and growth. For many of the recruits throughout the years, the WDU’s brand of revolutionary feminism was indeed a key consideration, if not the decisive factor, in joining. It was the overriding ingredient in the hope and belief that this group would be different. And much was made of this special quality, especially in the early years. It was a recurring theme in recruitment, in criticism sessions, and in political study. Baxter, in fact, liked to talk about the organization’s feminist founding as “our secret weapon.” Thus, these feminist trappings were vital to the founding, evolution, and daily inner workings.
What appeal could such a group have to numerous women and men who were dissatisfied with their lives, just at the moment when feminism was coming into its own? What claims could such a group make — having bestowed itself with an even greater mantle of self-righteousness among the “politically correct” at the time? What abuses could go unchallenged because they emanated from a female leader, a woman of the working poor — no matter how cruel, no matter how irrational, no matter how under the influence of too much alcohol or too much misdirected anger? What excesses could be excused to defend the existence of the organization, in the belief that the ends justify the means — and even one step beyond? For did it not become a matter of “revolutionary principle” to uphold the utterly unique nature of an organization that was both feminist and Marxist, and led by a most singular female leader? Our leader, our Lenin, our god.
This, then, is a story of the 1970s — and a story of today. From it we can learn about the dangers of too much belief outside oneself — so much belief that one day there was nothing left to believe in. The Empress lost her clothes.
I. The Origins
The Marxist Context
In this paper I intentionally focus less on the actual political work of the WDU than on the techniques employed to attract members, bind them to the group, and persuade them to stay. Since the WDU was a political group of the radical Left, I wish to make clear that this is neither an analysis or critique of political ideologies per se, nor an attempt to conclude that the organizational methodology of Marxism-Leninism leads necessarily to cultic formation. There is a vast body of literature showing that restrictive groups can be and are focused around many themes — religion, therapy, self-help, the occult, race, new-age beliefs, even flying saucers. And it is recognized that a combination of factors is necessary to generate what would be considered a cult, destructive or otherwise. These factors include sociopolitical aspects, cultural milieu, a charismatic leader, and an all-embracing ideology that appeals to vulnerable potential members. Therefore, the ideology of Marxism-Leninism is by no means a necessary criterion; nor does Marxism-Leninism per se imply cultism.
On the other hand, it would be both naive and misleading to deny or skirt the rather controversial nature of Marxism-Leninism in practice. One merely has had to watch current events to see that some of the world’s staunchest Marxists have been questioning, continue to question, and, in some cases, are completely discarding previously honored premises. It is widely recognized that any fervent belief has the ability to lead its adherents to fanaticism. Marxists are certainly not exempt from this phenomenon; in fact, perhaps, they are too well known for it. As one Eastern European described his experience:
It was an era of great collective faith. A man who kept in step with the era experienced feelings that were all but religious: he renounced his ego, his person, his private life in favor of some-thing higher, something suprapersonal. True, the basic doctrines of Marxism are purely secular in origin, but the significance now assigned them is similar to that of the Gospel and the Biblical commandments. They have grown into a body of thought which is inviolable and therefore, in our terminology, inviolate. (Kundera, 1983, p. 190)
It is my opinion, then, that the excessive faith and endless toil required of Marxist revolutionaries, coupled with the institutionalization of democratic centralism as a structural base, create fertile ground for cultic phenomena to take hold. This combination can and most often does breed the ultra-authoritarianism of an unchallenged leader and the concomitant total submission of the individual to that leader’s decisions and desires.
In the WDU this process was especially enhanced by the leader’s undisputed interpretation and instruction of communist cadre training, by the growing glorification of her leadership abilities (both theoretical and organizational), and by the confining atmosphere of total immersion into cadre life. Members’ unfailing devotion to their political ideals, their unalterable faith in their leader, and their binding commitment to one another as comrades in the struggle, all served to exacerbate the effects of this dynamic. The outcome was a powerful combination of a sophisticated and relentless indoctrination and a profound and binding individual and collective belief. What emerged was an extremely closed environment with little or no critical thinking on the part of the members and an increasing separation from the rest of the activist and intellectual Left, and from the “outside” in general. There resulted a world with its own rules and regulations, its own ethical and moral standards, its own language and belief system.
In the 1960s much political and social activism was in response to “a profound crisis in values defined by unprecedented affluence on the one hand and potential thermonuclear holocaust on the other” (West & Singer, 1980, p. 3247). Such was the dilemma facing the youth (and some adults) of that era. Eventually, “many fled to form colonies, [or] communes. Others turned to the apparent security of paternalistic religious and secular cults” (p. 3247). Both the spirit of hopefulness (“love power”) of the hippie counter-culture and the spirit of rebellion (“people power”) of the activist New Left waned with the deaths of role models such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy, with the student deaths at Kent State, and with the shock of the Water-gate episode. Disillusionment, despair, and disgust with the so-called American Dream were commonly felt emotions among an entire generation of once idealistic youth.
Thus, in the early to mid-1970s, politically active North Americans found themselves in a “post” period. The heyday of the hippie movement, the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, the New Left, and the women’s movement had all passed. For those who wished to hold onto a leftist vision, particularly in urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, there arose a flurry of activity, self-defined as anti-imperialist, socialist feminist, nationalist, or radical Marxist. This activity took place primarily in the form of reading, study groups, and forums to discuss and debate what type of political work would best serve to bring about social change. Much of this discussion centered on the study of classical Marxist-Leninist texts, along with what had now become the highly regarded work of Mao Tse-tung. In addition, people were learning more about Third World liberation movements — in Cuba, Angola, Vietnam, Korea, Mozambique, Eritrea, to name the most popular. More than anything else, perhaps, knowledge of these movements made a profound impact on this generation of leftists. What greater proof of the correctness of their thinking and the direction they were heading than seeing, for example, the tiny country of Vietnam win against the strongest of world powers? The “little man” could win! — with the right beliefs and an unswerving commitment to the struggle. This gave renewed fervor to the wavering faith of some left-wing idealists.
Yet, for many, there were bitter memories of recent participation in the New Left, the antiwar movement, or the women’s movement. Countless activists came away from those experiences with the notion that within the Left in the U.S. there was a lack of honest and accountable leadership and a lack of organizational structure and theoretical development that could endure. Thus, within what remained of the radical Left, the debate centered on what form of organization to build: a mass party or a vanguard party. Those that chose the latter as their model became part of what was known as the New Communist Movement, or the party-building movement. Implicit in this choice was an acceptance of the need for a Marxist-Leninist, disciplined party that would be the vanguard in leading the U.S. working class to revolution.
This deliberate search for a viable organizational form channeled the energies of the still idealistic and led to some decisive actions for many leftists. During this period, some version of Marxist-Leninist-Mao-Tse-Tung Thought often was the philosophy adopted by a variety of liberating movements — among African Americans, women, Asians, Hispanics, workers, gays. The emergence of “pre-party formations,” as these groups came to be called, was a common phenomenon, with everyone trying to recruit everyone else into one group or another, each being convinced of having found the “correct line.” Some of these groups were more traditional in their political interpretations, following the party lines of China, the Soviet Union, or even Albania; others were hoping to come up with some new brand of Marxism more applicable to the times and to this country.
It was in this environment — serious and searching — that 13 women met together in San Francisco in the summer of 1974 to found a new organization, simply calling it a pre-party formation. Twelve of these women were in several different Bay Area study groups; they either knew each other or knew of one another through common social or political circles. The thirteenth woman was Doreen Baxter, a Marxist university professor, who was planning to return to the U.S. after a prolonged and confrontational contract-renewal fight at a Canadian university. Baxter came to this group through a connection with one of the women, Miriam, a former student of hers.
The 13 founders of the WDU were white and primarily of middle-class background (although party lore always described them as being of the working class). Eight of them had some college education; six of the eight had degrees (4 B.A.’s, 1 M.S.W., and Baxter with the Ph.D.). Their ages ranged from 19 to 41, but most of them were in their mid-20s. Baxter was 39 years old, which meant that the others (with one exception) were anywhere from 7 to 20 years younger than Baxter. Other than Baxter, they held working-class or alternative jobs. Three worked together in a women’s carpentry collective, two were hospital workers, two were clerical workers, one was a library clerk, one was a press operator in a women’s publishing collective, one was a phone company technician, and two had unknown incomes.
These women had been active for a number of years either in their communities, in the antiwar movement, in the women’s movement, in the prison movement, or at their workplaces. Their self-identities were as radical lesbians (with the exception of Baxter and one other who stated at the time that they were not lesbians) and/or as anti-imperialists. For most of them, at this point, the emphasis was not particularly on being Marxist. The adoption of Marxism as a political ideology was not yet formulated in their minds. Although as a group they may not have agreed to a single identifying label, they did consider themselves to be serious political women intent on working for social change in America — or in their words, “to bring about revolution.”
The WDU’s founders (and many members who joined between 1975 and 1977) were deeply influenced by the prevalent party-building atmosphere. They were eager to make a dedicated commitment to some form of revolutionary struggle. Their identification with radical politics, coupled with the fact that 11 of them were lesbians, gave these women an additional focus — to find a group that would be feminist as well as Marxist in outlook and that would allow them their sexuality. It was common knowledge within the left that a number of groups in the New Communist Movement would not accept lesbians or gays as true Marxist-Leninists. In their many meetings, these women were already discussing forming some kind of radical women’s organization — as vague and ill-defined as it was in their minds at the time.
Since the 1960s each of these women had been active in the various mutations of the leftist and/or the women’s movements, and each in her way now felt an acute dissatisfaction with those experiences. Each was looking for a better way to channel her energies. At one of their first combined meetings in the summer of 1974, the 13 women met at length in the basement of one of their houses. They shared their class histories and talked about starting their own group. Their agreed-upon goal was to build an alternative to the pre-party formations that came out of the remnants of the student New Left and the antiwar movement. They wanted to be free of what they saw as the ills rampant in the existing groups, in particular, racism, sexism, and lack of direction.
The Leader Arrives
When Doreen Baxter started attending their meetings, the discussions took on a new dimension. She spoke with conviction and dynamism about actually forming a group. Not only was she well-versed in Marxist theory, but also she had a minor reputation for her theories on the role of women in capitalist society. She spoke with the assurance of a known figure in the women’s movement, with published articles and public speeches. Her life experience and her self-proclaimed history of radical activism added the necessary working-class component to her image and to her outlook.
In describing her political past (which she did repeatedly and often, particularly in the formative years of the WDU, whenever she had a group of members around her), she spoke with flourish and embellishment (and, according to some of her contemporaries, with great exaggeration) about her years in the Civil Rights Movement, community organizing efforts, the antiwar movement, the student movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the New Left, the women’s movement, the New Communist Movement, and the Canadian liberation movements. Baxter would boldly proclaim that she saw herself brandishing impeccable credentials to be anybody’s spokesperson and leader.
Although none of the founders who were interviewed remembered Baxter presenting her class history at their formative meetings, there were many occasions when she related her version of at least her recent past in academia. At these times, her words reflected the bitterness, paranoia, and self-aggrandizement that characterized her behavior — and her leadership. She was clearly proud to be a woman with a Ph.D. and to have been a university professor. She insisted that people know she came from a working-class background and that she had endured many hard-ships and prejudices as a woman in pursuit of a college education and an academic career. Along with other academics in the 1960s, she supported the existence of Marxist tendencies within the mainstream disciplines and saw herself as the brunt of moves by academic reactionaries who were against radical changes. At the first university she worked for, she claimed that the city’s police department considered her teaching “dangerously persuasive” and labeled her a “subversive.” According to her own accounts, the university administration was given this information by a student informer and police undercover agent on campus.
At the same time, Baxter was quite popular among the students. As a professor who spoke out for students’ rights, she always managed to draw a coterie of students around her. She held seminars at her house; afterwards there would be drinking, songs, and poems. It was often a challenge for the students to keep up with her drinking. During this period, there were occasions when she appeared immobilized with paranoia, childlike, and scared. She got students to do her errands; she couldn’t even go to the grocery store. She began to have attendants and bodyguards; she never went anywhere alone. Her eventual firing by the university sparked a student protest and sit-in, which put her name on the map of radicalism. She often proudly stated that this sit-in held in her honor made national headlines for two weeks. Baxter literally described herself as a charismatic leader, as a national figure fighting for socialism and feminism. She stated often that the news coverage of her story was a key factor in bringing the topic of the women’s movement and equal rights to national attention and awareness.
With a repeat performance of in-fighting and threats of a purge at the next university (this time outside the United States), Baxter grew even more bitter. She always spoke of her years in academia as a period of irreparable loss, as years stolen from the development of her thought. She regarded this experience as her pursuit of the politics of truth, in which she was shot down and betrayed. And she never forgot nor forgave those who sided (or who she thought sided) against her. She came to openly regard and talk about the academic establishment and many of her former colleagues as mindless, malevolent, and stupid.
At the next university, she formed another coterie of loyal students, whom she advised and took great interest in. Regularly she took them on political retreats to a small farm she owned. In these sessions, she would talk about the necessity for political commitment to a movement and the use of criticism/self-criticism.
Baxter became very interested in mass social psychology and group behavior modification. She studied Robert Jay Lifton’s (1963) work on thought reform; she studied and admired “total” communities, such as Synanon, and directed methods of change, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Ironically, she spoke of these methods as positive ways of changing people. During her six years outside the U.S., she studied the problems of organization and the class forces in the North American Left. It was during this time that she claimed to have “figured it all out”: she had come to certain conclusions about organization, survival, and effectiveness. With “academic dreamland” behind her, she made the decision to return to her homeland and her home state. Especially during the early years of the WDU she spoke of this decision with heartfelt emotion: she was returning to the working class, to where she was born and belonged.
In the summer of 1974 Baxter went to San Francisco to look up a former student, Miriam. Miriam hadn’t seen or had contact with Baxter since the summer of 1969, when Baxter held a summer teaching position in the area. On that visit, Miriam and Baxter had a major disagreement over interpretations of the People’s Park action which had recently taken place near the University of California, Berkeley campus. Baxter had been drinking and there was a big blow-up, with Baxter trashing Miriam for being politically naive and stupid. They did not part amicably. Miriam, therefore, was quite surprised to see Baxter at her door five years later. She was even more struck by the actual person standing before her. Baxter said she had given up drinking; obviously she had lost a lot of weight, she looked good and healthy. She attributed all of this to having found Marxism. Miriam, herself entrenched in leftist study groups, saw her former professor as a living testament to Marxism-Leninism. Here was truly a way to change your life. Miriam thought it would be a good idea to introduce Baxter to her other political friends, and so began the year of forming what was to become the WDU.
Having met women who were equally enamored with “the struggle” and equally fed up with the system, during one of their group meetings, Baxter called the question. She urged the forming of a serious, radical women’s group that would eventually evolve into a disciplined Marxist party. According to the recollections of some of the founders, this process happened almost overnight. At one meeting they were a group; by the next they were a real pre-party formation. One founder remembered both the thrill and the tension of these days: “I woke up one morning thinking, `My god, I’m in a party now.’ I was in a panic, feeling totally responsible for the class struggle. I knew that if I messed up now it was another nail in the coffin of the working class.”
This move toward a formal organization was decidedly led by Baxter. All structural foundation emanated from her: to solidify the amorphous-ness of their ideas, to be disciplined, to have leadership, to adopt security measures, to elect a Central Committee, with even her bold suggestions of who should be on that leading body.
The First Year
The 13 founders held numerous meetings throughout the summer of 1974. At Baxter’s urging, a Central Committee was elected by secret ballot. She assured the others that despite their small size a leadership body was needed. As a supporting argument, she pointed to Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese communists, stating that Mao’s party began with only six people and had a Central Committee right from the start. Baxter left San Francisco to return to Canada for the fall session; the others continued to read and study. They felt strongly that they were onto something special, so they kept their newly formed group very secret.
Baxter returned for a visit at Christmas break (1974); she presented her work on Dialectical Leadership and the group wrote its first constitution. At Baxter’s suggestion, the Central Committee assigned itself the task of writing a position paper, to be called “On the World Situation,” a title that suggests the grandiosity of their vision. Baxter visited again at spring break (1975); at this time they made the decision to let men into the group. Despite the radical lesbian background of most of them, they did not want to be part of a separatist movement; they did not see men as the enemy. Baxter left to finish up the semester; the others carried on with their studying and writing of “On the World Situation.” During this time, some very cautious recruitment was going on, bringing in a small number of close friends, spouses, and relatives.
From the start, Baxter insisted on setting up various units. She began a process of dividing up the group, small as it was. Some were put in leadership over others. Already there were separate meetings of the “leadership” before and after the meetings with the rest of the group. Immediately there was a recognition that some of them were being favored for and pushed into leadership, that there was going to be a lot of hierarchy and structure, and that there was a right or wrong way, according to Baxter.
Also, at this early stage, Baxter instilled a sense of discipline, as well as an aura of secrecy. She described the group as a “paramilitary formation.” She impressed upon the others that what they were creating was so potent that the State would immediately infiltrate if it knew what they were doing. They were decidedly an “underground” organization. One founder described walking into her house, where Baxter was staying at the time, to find her playing with and cleaning a gun. “Baxter threw the loaded gun across the room for me to catch. She said it was to make me stronger, harder, and get my reflexes in shape. Baxter talked me into buying a rifle. As usual, instinct told me that something was not right about this, and, as usual, I was afraid to say anything. We did drills, broke down guns, and things like that.” (Over the years, Baxter amassed a cache of guns, which very few members knew about. She referred to them in inner-circle meetings, saying we’d never know when we may need them. Occasionally she would brandish a gun at a public meeting.)
Their study in the formative years included texts on communist party organization (Chinese, Soviet, and American), on political theory (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, Dimitrov, Gramsci, Le Duan), on U.S. labor and working-class history, and on China and the Chinese Cultural Revolution in particular. According to one of the founders, “She was forming us into the model. We did our first study of Meyer’s cadre training. It was very slow and very serious. We studied, wrote papers, did a lot of criticism/self-criticism and class histories. She set it all up.”
“The Real Thing”
Having experienced such frustration with the anarchy, machismo, and fluidity of the New Left and feeling a compulsion to do something with their political convictions (and hence their lives), these women in San Francisco were eager for organizational stability. They readily accepted Baxter’s version of cadre training; for them, at last, this was the real thing. They saw themselves articulating a profound transformation of leftist politics; they felt serious and special; their work took on new importance and a sense of urgency. They prided themselves on being the founders and leaders of a new kind of Marxist group — and women’s group — that would help bring about revolution in America, in the tradition of other great revolutionary movements.
They had no specific timetable for this; in fact, they did not believe that revolution in the United States was something that would happen in their lifetimes. Yet, with the deepest of convictions, they felt that their particular political understanding of the contradictions in capitalism and their own personal experiences as women heightened their awareness of the need for a more just society. As they saw it, this made them part of an inevitable process, giving them a place in the history of humankind.
Whether or not, in these early months, it was outwardly acknowledged, Baxter was the leader of this group. She brought structure and discipline and she led the study of the basic ideology. Having floundered for some time on their own, these women, for the most part, welcomed Baxter’s level of knowledge and decisiveness. It was quite clear that she was taking the lead; they felt a kind of elated relief, albeit with some personal trepidation because of her strong-willed and domineering personality. As one founder stated, “She was the leadership. There was no question about it. She was the motivating force. She was the organizer. She was the teacher to us all — and at that time she was a very good teacher.” Another founder described it this way: “Her role as the leader evolved. There was a need — she filled it. She wanted to do it. And so it happened.”
By the fall of 1975 there were about 25 members and a growing recruitment pool. One year after the founding meetings, the initial group was solidified in its commitment and Doreen Baxter was firmly established as the theoretical and organizational leader.
A Cult in the Making
Despite her lengthy absences, Baxter was able to actively provide not only theoretical but also organizational leadership. Besides the units she divided them into, which was certainly one means of control, there was a great deal of telephone communication with her. There were no independent moves on the part of the rest of the group. It became standard practice to always check what she would think about something before proceeding on any activity. One founder explained: “We would go to several different phone booths and make these convoluted long-distance calls to her because of all the security we felt was needed. We would talk with her for an hour or so and get direction on what we were doing or should do next. I don’t think a single independent decision was made without consulting her and getting her approval from the very beginning. We learned to do that very early on — so she wouldn’t blow up about something.”
Returning to the Bay Area on each of her university breaks, Baxter always took charge, made her presence known, “reclaimed the crown as it were,” said one of the founders. Invariably she was highly critical of what they had been doing, proving once again their need for her leadership and guidance. Indeed, she always found something or someone to “blow up about.” These were not pleasant episodes. Baxter was big, loud, good at slamming down her things and making a scene, expert at making the other person look stupid. She commonly used ridicule combined with stern criticism to attack any independent decisions, that is, decisions she didn’t have the final say in. Baxter soon became the sole arbiter of the functioning of the group. Invariably, her summation and analysis of a problem or a person’s behavior were always at a much more sophisticated political level than any of the others could have come up with. Time and again her view was accepted, with a mixture of awe, shame, and guilt.
When she was in town the group had to meet more often and for longer periods of time than when she was away. Eighteen-hour meetings were not uncommon. Since she always found something wrong, she insisted on lengthy discussions and much criticism to set the group back on the right path again. Over and over, in a merciless and humiliating manner, Baxter pointed out the others’ political naiveté and lack of seriousness. She also criticized their “closed circle” mentality and inability to recruit.
Although Baxter’s returns always brought major upheaval, the other women, eager not to lose what they had begun, were willing to go along with this. They accepted it as a necessary part of the process. More importantly, they felt that Baxter was articulating in a very powerful way many of the things they each had felt: the sudden realization of the significance of Marxism-Leninism, the irreconcilable inadequacies of the existing pre-party formations, and certainly the centrality of women’s oppression. Suddenly there were the words and, for the most part, they latched onto them with a fervor. Doreen Baxter was charismatic, with stature and university training; she was intelligent, impressive, and serious. And she was calling on them to live out their own political beliefs with the same commitment and seriousness that she herself avowed. It became apparent now to the women in this original group that they were destined to be professional revolutionaries.
The Importance of the Second-in-Command
Shortly after Baxter’s permanent relocation to San Francisco in the summer of 1975, she was set up in a small house. The others moved her in. They painted and got the house ready, making it a comfortable space for her. She did not get a job; instead she set to work at building their newly formed organization: she wrote, studied, led criticisms, and conducted political education. When the others came to visit her, they were ordered around, told to clean up, empty her ashtrays, open her sodas. Often it was obvious that she had been lying around in bed for days reading spy novels. Through long babbling conversations, she would convince her visitor that she “learned about the enemy by reading spy novels.” In describing this period, one founder said, “I thought all this was pretty bizarre, but I went along with it. I knew if I said something she’d go crazy. I didn’t want her screaming at me.” Initially Baxter’s financial support came from some of her own savings, but very quickly it came primarily from members’ monthly dues — the beginning of the thread of growing financial corruption.
During this first summer, several of the founders had at least one uncomfortable encounter with Baxter, who obviously was not as reformed in her alcoholism as she had attested to Miriam one year before. These experiences were recounted in this way:
Lizzie: Once Cindy and I were at Baxter’s little house. She got wildly drunk and came on to us. We were completely freaked out. Afterwards we called Sandra and she was very unsympathetic to us. She said it was just a drunk talking and we should have taken control of the situation. She called us liberals and blamed it on us.
Miriam: I knew she had a long history of alcoholism, but she had convinced me she was squeaky clean when she came back. Then once at her house, she got very drunk. I went along with it like I did in college, as a codependent. When I mentioned it to Sandra, I got severely criticized. She said I should just let her pour the booze down, let her do what she wants. She said I was just being liberal. I then shut it out of my mind and lived in a fantasy. I never saw her drunk again after that. You have to understand, I held her as a god. I was terrified because she had an evil side to her, but there was also a level of brilliance that kept me from questioning these things.
Bonnie: I only saw her drunk one time. She told me she was an alcoholic and shouldn’t drink and then she proceeded to consume an entire gallon jug of wine. She got totally out of control. She was carrying on, crying, manic, screaming. I didn’t know what to do. She scared the shit out of me. She almost jumped out the window of my house. She tried to go to bed with me. She said I was the exact image of her, that I would be her protégé, that she would make me into a great revolutionary leader and a Marxist-Leninist scholar. She eventually passed out. I never saw this behavior in her before.
The next day I told Penny and she said she had had a similar experience. I didn’t tell anyone else because I was terrified. I thought we better not have any alcohol in the house. I thought this woman is crazy and what am I doing here? I thought I should be careful not to be alone with her. But it never happened again. And no one would talk about it. To myself I thought, well, we have to protect her because she’s so important. This was just a momentary aberration and the important thing was to protect her reputation. But she was absolutely delusional. She was ranting and talking about herself as the second coming of Lenin.
Penny: I had mentioned to someone else, one of the others in the group, about Doreen’s drinking, that she seemed to have a problem with drinking. Shortly afterwards I was at Sandra’s house one day, and she sat me down for a very serious talk. She said it wasn’t good to talk to anyone about Doreen’s drinking problem. She had obviously heard somehow that I had said something. She said the State could use it against Doreen, against us. She brought up some example from the Black Panthers or something. The gist was to keep my mouth shut; this was not to be talked about. I didn’t know much about what the State would or wouldn’t do — and I guess it made sense to me to protect a weakness.
As was true until very near the final break-up of the WDU, and as can be seen from the above quotes, Baxter’s relationship with Sandra was the key to the smooth functioning of the organization and to the members’ devoted adherence to Baxter’s leadership. Sandra, with her own history of alcoholism and codependency, became the classic enabler. She was also the classic second-in-command/enforcer. From the very first meetings, Sandra was drawn to Baxter’s leadership style. She very quickly became Baxter’s staunchest supporter in all things — theoretical, organizational, and personal.
Sandra did not have an outside job; hence, she was able to spend most of her time at Baxter’s side. She was as close to the top as she could get and she would do anything to stay there. One founder described her “like the star’s agent who does the dirty work in the background.” Sandra soon became Baxter’s second-in-command, a position she held for the remaining years of the party.
Trained as a teacher, Sandra had a great deal of insight into people and was herself a charismatic personality. She also had a history (known to only a few) of being a sort of thug within the women’s movement. Certain disruptive and threatening actions toward other radical groups and individuals had been attributed to her. Her first party assignments from Baxter were in Internal Education, which meant leading cadre development study, new members training, and recruitment. She, more so than Baxter, conducted almost every major criticism, denunciation, trial, and rectification campaign in the years to come. She headed the Discipline and Control Board, the Security staff, and the Finance Committee. She, along with Baxter, had final say in all promotions, demotions, work assignments, punishments, and expulsions.
Because of her involvement in recruitment and new members classes, Sandra knew every detail about every member’s life, both before and after joining the organization. She was skilled at using this knowledge in both negative and positive ways. She had the capacity to be the harshest critic or the most ardent supporter. She was the enforcer of the strictest of norms. She made sure that every whim uttered by Doreen Baxter was carried out. It could be said that without Sandra, Doreen Baxter could not have pulled it off. Sandra was inherently crucial to making the machine work. In early Central Committee meetings, Baxter would talk very seriously about her remolding theories, about the structured sessions in which the individual was forced to submit to both leadership and peer pressure, to break, to confess, to conform. Sandra, taking in Baxter’s every word with a seething enthusiasm, was there to make it work. Baxter often spoke about the party as her “human experiment” and Sandra was her most loyal surgical assistant.
The basic guiding principles of the WDU were established in the first year. They were:
–absolute respect for leadership;
–the concept of “proletarian class standpoint” as the measuring stick of all practice and development;
–the cadre ideal, embodied in strict discipline and a 24-hour-a-day commitment;
–the use of criticism/self-criticism as the mechanism for change;
–the necessity of building and defending the party.
Sometimes, these founding principles were presented in documents written by Baxter. More often, they were hammered at in study and/or criticism sessions led by Baxter. In December 1974, she presented her “Principles of Dialectical Leadership,” an 18-page paper that outlined the norms of conduct for leadership. In essence these came to be the norms of conduct for the membership as a whole since all members were considered to be leadership of the working class. A close look at this early document clearly highlights Baxter’s thinking and methodology. It reveals the basis of the WDU’s governing ideology — and language — for years to come.
The language employed by Baxter, although awkward and perhaps somewhat foreign to the average person, is in fact quite typical of language and terminology commonly used in communist organizations and movements. Doreen Baxter’s strength was her ability to write with force and specificity, to exert a kind of power and certainty, and to verbalize and articulate the diverse or unformed thoughts of others into a seemingly cohesive statement. Another aspect of her skill as a charismatic leader was her capacity to use political terminology to attack and ridicule that which (or whomever) she didn’t like, giving the impression that she was making a political criticism rather than acting on personal vendetta or the need to control.
Baxter possessed a keen ability to sway those vulnerable to this type of language. She was able to conjure up enormous feelings of guilt in order to call forth a response of willing self-sacrifice. She did not hesitate to use harsh and rigid language, in particular to point out or point at the “enemy,” who was anyone who did not see things the same way (or perhaps was simply getting in the way). She glorified self-denial as the only road to purification — that is, the ideal must always come before the individual, the latter taking on greater and greater negative connotations. She translated the abstract ideal into the living organization. She manipulated language in order to call on the good and the noble in each person, while she held forth the promise of fulfillment, to be achieved through dedication, hard work, discipline, and sacrifice.
A careful reading of the following examples of Baxter’s guidance to her flock will reveal the double-bind, black-is-white thinking that led the WDU and that members came to thrive on: Be harsh to find goodness. Suffer to find happiness. Work hard and be disciplined to find freedom. Ruthlessness is kindness. Change yourself to fit the mold or be banished to the selfish fate of the rest of the world.
Doreen Baxter on Transformation:
If we should see in our midst a comrade who is arrogant, commandist, manipulative, and dishonest, we will no doubt also see that person respond to criticism with counterattack, trickery, or phony submission. In these cases where remold-ing has proved not to be genuine, we see an individual who is refusing to change. Then our only recourse is to combat liberalism, to be utterly unmerciful. It is our duty at those times to expose the clever pretender as one who will wreck our work and eventually our organization, as an agent of the bourgeoisie in our midst.
Those who act out pitiful submission (often complete with tears) only want to make their comrades feel sorry for them. Do not be taken in by crocodile tears and fancy fakery! We know from hard experience that if there is any hope for the bourgeois individualist to remold, it is we who must be positively unrelenting in our criticism and in our attitude toward that person. Only then can the comrade hope to show him- or herself worthy of being among us, of being a communist.
Those who do not change should be expelled. Our role is not to be therapists, not to be parents, and certainly not to be fools. We are sincere communists with time only for those comrades who are equally sincere, honest, and devoted to the cause of the people’s liberation first and foremost. Never lose sight of the fact that the bourgeois individualist is dangerous. Here is a person who despises others, hates those whom he or she cannot use and manipulate — and here is a person who is a prime target for recruitment as an agent of the State, an informer, and a provocateur.
Our change must be truly genuine. That is, to change our class standpoint and our subjective conscious-ness. We cannot function any other way. It is the only correct method of operating, of bringing change to the world around us, to the people. We must look inside ourselves to root out those things that make us want to follow someone who is more powerful. At the same time, nothing is more important than freedom of initiative, responsibility, and creativity — within the bounds of necessity. Nothing should ever be done outside of the discipline of the organization. We must recognize that it is envy, resentment, mistrustful-ness, and me-firstism that cause one to be passive. And that passivity is the worst kind of subtle undermining of leadership.
Doreen Baxter on Criticism/Self-Criticism:
Giving and taking criticism is the very essence of our cadre development. Constant use of criticism and self-criticism is absolutely crucial to the existence of our organization. It is an expression of honesty, faith, trust, and commitment.
Criticism and self-criticism is meant to show our belief in our commitment and our faith in one another. Criticism is for our own political development and for our political work; it is NEVER psychotherapy of any kind. We do not indulge faults, we rectify them; we do not justify errors, we over-come them. Ours is a hard calling and a stern discipline: it is also liberation.
We know how difficult it is to change ourselves. It can only be done by means of each comrade’s constructive aid in struggling with oneself and with each and every other comrade. To criticize is to construct. To criticize harshly is to construct an organization that will not be torn down — or torn apart. Criticism is our only path to the future.
Doreen Baxter on Discipline and Cooperation:
Irresponsibility in words and actions must be controlled. This control of individualism brings strength to the organization; it also improves our work with the people. Control keeps people responsible. Control furthers the unity of our organization.
In order to have cooperation and a true collectivity, in order for it to be correct, discipline of the highest order is required. We believe that the single cadre must merge into the larger whole. To be a collectivity means that we cannot abide by any act of individualism whatsoever. Individualism will disrupt or destroy the strength and power of what we have built. Individualism and cooperation cannot coexist. Each comrade is to constantly remind herself or himself of this guiding principle: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the organization always and forever comes before the individual. There is ONLY the organization. We are nothing without it.
The duty of each cadre is to participate fully in the life of the organization, to follow discipline, to work cooperatively and collectively, to ensure that all other cadres are held responsible for their actions, and, of utmost importance and to be carried out without fail, to point out errors, overcome faults, and correct mistakes. Struggle is the life of the organization. With the resolution of each struggle comes a higher level of development, another advancement in exemplary practice. This is how we increase the fighting capacity of the whole organization.
The Expulsion of Baxter’s Rival
With the acceptance of the norms outlined in Baxter’s paper, the group was increasingly bound to follow her direction. There was, however, one woman among the founders, Helene, who from the beginning was prone to voicing her doubts and objections. Whenever Baxter was in town she was quick to launch attacks upon Helene. The final assault came with her move to San Francisco in the summer of 1975.
During the past year, it was clear to the rest of the group that Helene was the strongest opposition to Baxter. Helene did not worship Baxter. She didn’t let her ride on her laurels, and she wasn’t afraid to let this be known. Helene was not only raising theoretical questions, but also she was asking who Doreen Baxter was and why the group always had to follow her lead. One of the debates within the group, which took place when Baxter was out of town, centered around what she would be doing to support herself upon relocation to San Francisco at the end of the academic year. Would she get a job? Or would she build the party, that is, not work and be supported by the others? Helene promoted the view that Baxter should work like the rest, “proletarianize herself,” as she put it. Most of the others weren’t certain about this issue. The one exception was Sandra, who supported Baxter in every way. Since Sandra was in regular phone communication with Baxter, it is not unlikely that Baxter was kept abreast of who within the group was and was not supporting her direction and her ideas.
With her relocation to San Francisco, Baxter moved against Helene with a vengeance. She began with criticisms that were of a political nature, centering on what she described as the dogmatic content of the Central Committee’s position paper (changed from “On the World Situation” to “The Strategy Papers”). Baxter argued that the paper had been overly influenced by Helene. She knew that Helene had friends and roommates who were with another leftist formation. Also, she knew that, besides herself, Helene was the most studied in Marxism and that Helene was the group’s opinion leader when she was absent. Baxter immediately labeled Helene’s influence on the position paper as Stalinist and dogmatic — very serious and very negative charges in this new group that was aspiring to be exactly the opposite and so different from the rest of the Marxist-Leninist Left.
Within hours of her return to San Francisco, Baxter challenged Helene to open warfare. Polemics were written; critiques were discussed. With a mimeo machine in one of their houses, members of the group spent much of their energy on typing, reproducing, and distributing these documents amongst themselves.
Two Founders Attacked
In fact, Helene had greatly influenced the thinking presented in “The Strategy Papers.” Nevertheless, this brewing controversy was recognized by the group as an obvious power struggle between Baxter and Helene. Both saw themselves as leaders. Doreen Baxter won. Helene’s personal style, although domineering, was not as manipulative; she was clearly less skilled as an organizer of people. Meanwhile, Baxter was a genius at using a combination of flattery and emotional terrorism. Rather quickly Helene found herself without any supporters. Baxter mobilized the others against Helene, whipping them into a frenzy. She called Helene a dogmatist, a class traitor, an enemy of the people.
Miriam, a member of the Central Committee at the time, remembered it like this: “The charges laid out against Helene were beyond anything I could have conceived of. I thought to myself, if I were brighter I would have spotted Helene as this corrupt influence in our midst, but clearly I didn’t understand the ramifications. The complexity of Baxter’s criticisms and her political analysis somehow made the severity of her accusations easier to accept.”
Soon enough Miriam herself was being criticized by Baxter as a liberal and a wimp (both harsh criticisms to a communist) and was being blamed for having allowed a renegade to worm into their group. Thanks to Baxter’s constant reminders in the months and years to come, Miriam (Baxter’s original connection to the group) was never able to outlive this derogatory image. Despite having been a founder, well-read, and a hard-working activist, she was never again given a position of responsibility in the organization. This negative stereotyping of Miriam was the beginning of many moves by Baxter over the years to discredit, denounce, humiliate, demote, and, in some cases, expel the 12 other founders. In fact, eight were expelled. Three others were relegated to low-level, nonleadership positions; their images were that of the incompetent but loyal follower.
Baxter’s attacks on Helene and Miriam were also typical of the kind of power and intimidation tactics used throughout the years. Soon it was widely known throughout the organization and remained known over the years that one mistake could cause the kind of fall and/or disgrace experienced by these two early comrades. Anyone could become a Helene or a Miriam.
By uniting the others against Helene, Baxter solidified the organization around her. In the end, after several months of debate, criticism, and struggle, everyone was against Helene. Papers called “Against Stalinism and Dogmatism” (later to be issued in a document entitled Organizational Unity) were drafted out of the documents generated during the months of debate. They were some of the first WDU documents, studied in great detail in the early years. The purpose of this study was not, as one might think, to provide an understanding of Stalinism or dogmatism. Rather, the study was meant to show that Baxter would allow no factions, no opinions other than her own, that she was always right and she always won, and let there be no mercy for those who got in the way.
At Baxter’s instigation, Sandra led an “investigation” of Helene. Sandra called on Lucie, another founder and previously Helene’s best friend, to carry out this task. Using Lucie in this assignment served a dual purpose. It ensured Lucie’s silence by forcing her to suppress any doubts she might have had, thereby binding her into going along with the leadership’s decisions in this matter. At the same time, seeing Lucie as the chief investigator in her case would work to intimidate Helene, who would soon realize that even her best friend was against her. The use of a best friend, or in some cases a spouse, as a key player in an investigation, denunciation, trial, or expulsion became a standard technique. Not only did it serve to separate people from one another, instilling a distrust for any and all comrades, but also it taught the lesson of organizational allegiance above and beyond any personal loyalty.
Finally, Baxter determined that Helene was to be declared an enemy; she was expelled “with prejudice.” This meant that for all intents and purposes she no longer existed. She was to be completely shunned. If party members saw her on the street, they were to look straight through her as though she didn’t exist. This, too, became a standard party method for dealing with adversaries (real or otherwise) — expelled members, defectors, anyone who spoke out against the organization, anyone Baxter decided she didn’t like.
It was always the decision of top leadership (that is, Baxter had final approval of all expulsions, with or without prejudice, even when recommendations came from Sandra or the Discipline and Control Board) as to exactly who would merit this extreme categorization — expulsion prejudice. Most often to be handed the fate of expulsion with prejudice in reality had nothing to do with the actual thoughts or actions of the individual who was about to be shunned and become nonexistent. Generally, by means of criticism, staged trials, threats, and at times acts of violence, the person would be intimidated into years of silence and would not imagine speaking about his or her party experience, much less taking any action against the group. This isolationist technique contributed to the us/them mentality typical of most cults and certainly typical of the WDU. It was used to create a feeling of superiority among members, as well as a sense of paranoia and hostility, as though these “enemies” truly posed a threat to the organization.
The First Goon Squad
Besides Helene’s formal expulsion from the organization, as a finishing touch, in the fall of 1975, a small squad (of female members from the founding group) was sent to physically intimidate her. One evening, Helene was stalked at her job and chased home by women who were her comrades just days before. They stormed her house, pushed her around, ransacked her belongings, and threatened her. They were well aware that Helene was recovering from recent major surgery; yet this did not prevent them from carrying out their orders to intimidate her into silence about the organization and threaten her to never move in any way against the organization or its work. This was the first use of goon squad tactics which the WDU came to be known for, both internally and externally, in ensuing years.
Such tactics were used against other groups on the Left, against groups within the local labor, peace, and anti-nuclear movements, and against certain former members. Cars were spray-painted. Houses and offices were ransacked. Documents were stolen. Political meetings and conventions were disrupted. People were surveilled and threatened. People were beaten up. In one case, two recently expelled members were beaten up in front of their child. Jobs were put in jeopardy, for example, with anonymous calls to employers identifying a certain person as a child molester or thief. Volunteer political work was put in jeopardy with anonymous calls to organizations identifying a certain person as an agent provocateur.
Similar methods were used inside the party as well. Militants being punished for something or awaiting trial were suspended (removed from party life), put on punitive suspension (could not be talked to by another member, that is, lived in total silence, sometimes for as long as six weeks), put under house arrest, and guarded round the clock. A member returning from a party assignment was met at the airport by a “goon” and escorted home in silence, given orders where to report the next day. A female militant sat for hours while Baxter, drunk, held a gun to the young woman’s head. A founder being expelled was whisked from her house, every-thing taken from her, and put on a plane to her parents’ home across the country. An expelled militant was suddenly thrown out of his house, all of his clothes and belongings discarded onto the street. A leadership militant about to marry one of Baxter’s most trusted handmaidens had a gun put to his head until he vowed he would never harm Baxter’s “daughter” — this was his real wedding ceremony, she declared. A foreign-born inner-circle militant who did not respond to one of Baxter’s advances was expelled and put on a plane to Europe without a penny in her pocket. Other expelled militants were threatened and extorted, given a schedule to repay the party for the “training” they received. This was sometimes in the thousands of dollars.
Baxter set up an elite group within the WDU called the Eagles whose job it was to carry out many of these assignments. Eagles received special training in security precautions and physical fitness from an ex-Marine member. Eagles served as Baxter’s personal bodyguards, as monitors during demonstrations, as disrupters, goons, and rabble-rousers whenever needed. Baxter rarely went anywhere without her highly trained, huge Rottweiler guard dog, plus an attendant or bodyguard.
The Experiment Works
In the day-to-day process of the WDU’s formation, everything that was happening took on a seriousness heretofore unknown — the directed study, the intensity of the debates, the sophistication of Baxter’s writings and polemics, the acceptance of discipline, the lengthy meetings, the institutionalization of criticism and self-criticism, even the first expulsion of one of their own. Baxter began to represent the living embodiment of their goals and ideals. Now the founders and their newly recruited members could be revolutionaries with their own organization and with their own revolutionary leadership.
The members spent more and more time together, bound by a shared political commitment and a vision of the future. Their energies in every waking hour were spent on perfecting themselves in the image of the cadre ideal. They worked feverishly toward building a party that would be new and different, Marxist and feminist, nondogmatic and American.
They knew that this was not an easy calling. As one founder reflected on the intense feelings of those early days, she said, “There was a strong sense that one must be willing to make sacrifices and be very committed. The view was that it’s a dirty job and someone has to do it. We lived by the words in Brecht’s poems, you know,
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
That justifies a lot of things,” she sighed.
A Group Dynamic
And so it came to be that Doreen Baxter, a roughhewn but well-educated woman from a background of urban poverty, brought into existence an organization totally at her command — an organization that exhibited the most extreme sort of cultic behavior. Baxter, as the leader, imposed the particularities of her own beliefs, as well as her own insecurities and neuroses, on the group’s written ideology and its stated goals, and, of course, on her followers. Her personal need to affirm herself by dominating others was played out to its fullest during the formation and development of the WDU.
Indeed, at this time in history, there were people for whom Baxter’s combination of working-class feminism and her new approach to Marxism held a certain appeal. This blending of class and feminist consciousness, along with a solid commitment to left-wing political activism and self-sacrificing revolutionism, served as a powerful and persuasive argument for many a recruit. For some, Baxter and the WDU had all the answers in a troubled time.
An equally significant factor in the WDU’s formation and growth was the dynamic of alcoholism, abuse, and codependence. At least 11 of the 13 founders of the WDU had experience with some form of substance abuse, primarily alcoholism — either in their families or personally. This characteristic, then, was an essential thread in the cultic evolution of the group. In a sense, the WDU became a large dysfunctional family, with Baxter as the abusive alcoholic parent and her second-in-command Sandra as the more rational but equally abusive other parent. For many members, this was perhaps unconscious but familiar territory.
Yet another factor is the intensity of the members’ faith in the political model and the fact that unquestioning belief in that model led each member to accept and contribute to a stern discipline and a harsh fate. Fervent political commitment and a devotion to Marxism-Leninism as a political theory engendered the seeming willingness of the participants to join in and go along with what very early on many outsiders recognized as cultic behavior. Baxter, who was self-trained in group psychology and an avid student of thought-reform techniques, found communist training literature to be a useful and effective tool in the process of exploiting the members’ readiness to make a commitment.
Always couched in feminist or Marxist lingo, the dynamic of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunctional behavior flourished in every aspect of the organization’s internal life:
–in the type of training that went on, manifest in the extreme control and rigid discipline necessary to achieve the “remolding” or transformation of each member to “submit” to cadre life;
–in the style of criticism/self-criticism used, tantamount to extreme moralism, humiliation, degradation, and guilt-tripping, embedded in the worst of Maoist rigidity and simplicity (i.e., everything is black or white, good or evil; everyone is either friend or enemy);
–in the kind of political work done, in effect a lazy-susan of Baxter’s seemingly arbitrary and very personal obsessions with the Left, intellectuals, politicians, and policymakers;
–in the harshness of the daily life, the abusive criticism sessions, the trials and purges, the punishments, the shunning, the violence, essentially the institutionalization of a cruel and exclusionary life style; and
–in the bizarre rituals of the inner circle, which included forced confessions, targeted humiliations and accusations, excessive drinking bouts replete with intimacy, sex, and violence, all of this never spoken about and intently guarded as the leadership secret.
The next section describes in greater detail exactly how the WDU came to dominate its membership, beginning with recruitment on through to 24-hour control over a member’s life.
II. A Little Carrot and a Lot of Stick
By the summer of 1975, Baxter and her cohorts were deeply committed to building a strong organization. Aside from their own study and collective criticism sessions, they knew that their other main task was to expand the membership. Baxter impressed upon them over and over that as an organization they had to grow and therefore each one of them had to think about people to recruit.
The Use of Study Groups
Recruitment began within friendship and co-worker networks, using the classic communist technique of study groups as a way to draw people in. Given that most of the founders were lesbians, they quite naturally looked for new members within the local women’s community, one obvious source of potential recruits. Like most actions, this one was strongly suggested by Baxter, who expressed the opinion that lesbians active in the Left or in the women’s community would be very open to a new organization founded by women and other lesbians. In order to attract women from this milieu, they formed a front group called “Women and the State,” producing a small pamphlet that described its goals and principles of unity.
One by one, targeted women were approached to join Women and the State. This process was done methodically and in stages; a plan was made and checked on daily. A potential member would be talked to, rather informally and seemingly spontaneously, about the Left, the political atmosphere in the U.S., the successful Third World revolutions, and the seriousness of the “people’s struggle.” When it became clear that the recruit was open to the idea of the need for a vanguard party, she was asked to join Women and the State as a way to continue to explore these issues and questions with like-minded women. In a tone of extreme seriousness, she was given the pamphlet to study and was asked to swear not to mention this to anyone. Another meeting time and place was set up to hear her decision.
In the San Francisco Bay Area at this time, radical politics was very much in the news. The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was being sought for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and subsequent armed bank robberies. The Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (an offshoot of the Weather Under-ground) was mysteriously distributing bulletins (“revolutionary communiques”) in coffeehouses, bookstores, and leftist hangouts. The region was crawling with Red Squads and FBI agents; guardedness and secrecy were not uncommon. Paranoia was rampant in leftist circles and in the women’s community.
The aura of secrecy around Women and the State fit well within this environment. It heightened both the intensity of the decision and the honor of being asked to join a “secret cell.” This was no small moment in a recruit’s life; it was a serious choice and a real commitment. It was also acknowledged as the beginning of something very new and very big. Although it was never stated, nor ever asked, it was somehow implied, and therefore understood, that there was something else — something bigger and even more serious — behind Women and the State. From the onset, a new recruit learned that questions about the organization were not allowed for security reasons. There was a “need-to-know” policy, explained as a protective measure for all involved. This, of course, was a convenient mechanism setting the stage for countless future demands for total acceptance and blind faith.
My personal experience in joining Women and the State was similar to that of all members who came into the organization in that period, either through this or a similar vehicle. I was “courted” by Sandra. I knew her and her lover socially; they lived in my neighborhood; they were among the first people I met when I arrived in San Francisco the previous year. I knew Sandra had been involved in radical women’s politics for a number of years, first on the East Coast and now in San Francisco. Sandra always seemed very serious and very concerned about what was going on politically. She would invite me for coffee and we would talk for what seemed like hours. These were always very thought-provoking sessions. Sandra was an intense person. Afterwards I felt like I was really connecting with someone, with something. I was both learning and being listened to. I felt respected, as though my opinion mattered. At the same time, I held great respect for Sandra and her dedication to the movement. Given what I knew about the “macho” politics of what we called the “male Left” and given my experience in the women’s movement, which seemed disorganized and unserious, it was always a pleasure to run into Sandra. Our meetings left me curious — and anxious for more. I was more than ready when she finally asked me to join Women and the State.
All I knew about the group was what I read in the pamphlet and what I was told. There were to be weekly meetings with about 10 other women. Sandra attended and led most of the meetings, but there were also others who played leadership roles. No one ever mentioned Doreen Baxter in these meetings. I had never heard of her; I had no idea that Sandra was her second or that Baxter was the force behind all this.
Several other study groups were going on simultaneously, recruiting from the workplace or friendship circles. Not all of the study groups were formed around the women’s theme, since Women and the State was set up to appeal specifically to women who would be drawn to that particular focus. However, all the groups focused on the study of basic Marxism, U.S. working-class and labor history, and Third World revolutionary movements. The readings and discussions were oriented in such a way as to culminate in the neophyte’s deeper recognition of the need for a vanguard revolutionary working-class party. Study group members learned through readings and directed discussions that throughout the world this was the proven means of bringing about social change; the victory of the Vietnamese people was given as the most current example. It followed logically then that membership in such a party was the only choice for a serious political person wanting to engage in effective political work.
The study group met weekly, in the evenings, reading and reviewing the simpler texts of Marx and Engels, selected works of Mao and others glorifying the efforts of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and articles or books by progressive historians. A portion of the sessions was also spent on the concept of dialectics (dialectical materialism), with assigned presentations on the readings or examples of dialectical thinking.
There were perhaps 10 or 12 students at each meeting. Discussions were led by two teachers; usually either one or the other of the teachers was known to each participant as his or her original recruiter into the study group. Once again it was silently understood that the study group leaders were getting their know-how from somewhere. But where? It was vague, mysterious — and very exciting. Study group members had the sense that they were being observed, watched; participation was encouraged and praised; members were pushed to volunteer for a presentation, to give personal examples to help explain something, or even to join in on an action, such as a local strike picket line. All of this added to a growing sense of being special, of being part of an elite, of being “chosen.” Suddenly, each recruit had a new circle of very serious friends . . . and something to be kept secret from other friends or family who weren’t in the circle.
Recruitment Into the “Org”
Some participants fell away from the study groups. Within time, generally about four to eight weeks, most of those who remained in the study groups were individually approached about joining the group that was behind all this. Recruiters referred to it as “the org,” explaining that they had not yet given it a name. Once again recruits were told that these meetings and discussions were to be kept confidential. A recruit was led to understand that her participation in and seriousness toward the study group made her stand out as ready for this next step. This was not for everyone, they said; now they were talking about a full-time revolutionary commitment to something much “heavier” than the study group. It was explained that the “org” was founded and led by experienced women and that it was the beginning of a vanguard party here in this country. A recruit would be asked, “Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for?”
The Intake Process
At the same time as this next level of courtship was going on, it was made clear to a recruit that acceptance into “the org” was not a given. Recruits were told that they would undergo a security investigation, a financial check, and a general personal and political assessment. The object of this was to find out if a recruit really was who she said she was, that is, to verify that the recruit was not a police agent. Bluntly expressing this doubt to the recruit served as an early intimidation tactic. Financial forms were filled out; legal documents, such as birth certificates and passports, were given over for examination to verify identities; family, education, and employment background was requested, either by interview or in writing. All of this was carried out in lengthy and serious meetings between the recruiter and the recruit. Simultaneously, a recruit might be questioned about a friend who was going through a similar process in order to verify and cross-check information. It was common practice, particularly in the early years, to ask a recruit to vouch for a friend, to state that to the best of his or her knowledge the friend in question was not an agent of the state.
This stage of being investigated immediately set up an unequal relation-ship between the recruit and the recruiters. The scrutiny was very one-sided. It was supposed to be enough of an honor to be considered for membership in this elite group. It was very uncool to want to know too much; it was implied that older, more experienced women were calling the shots, making the decisions. They knew best how to protect the organization in such risky times. Usually any apprehension was relieved only because each recruit usually had at least one friend who was already a member or who was being recruited at the same time. One former member described it like this:
I started thinking to myself that this was all pretty weird and I probably would not have joined but for the fact that I knew that two of my best friends were going through the same investigation and were expecting and hoping to join. Since they were both mature and level-headed individuals whom I respected, I thought it must be all right and worth a try. Not to forget that at the same time I was being treated with a lot of favor: I was praised in meetings for my great presentations; I was held up as someone who came from the working class, got a college education, and was about to give up easy living for the life of a dedicated political activist; I was told that they wanted me to lead study groups because I caught on so quickly. For me, the words of praise overshadowed my inner doubts and fears.
The intensified degree of security consciousness during this process was not seen as extreme or unnecessary by most new recruits. Rather, it was taken as an indication of the group’s seriousness and cautious concern, generating a feeling that both the individual recruit and the entire group were and would be well cared for. The widespread use of government and police surveillance, including COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program), was common knowledge to the type of person being recruited. If not, recruiters were certain to educate the naive recruit. As Elizabeth Wheaton (1987) points out in her book on the Communist Workers Party (another New Communist Movement group that existed in the same era as the WDU), COINTELPRO was a household word among the radical Left.
From its inception in 1956 to 1976, when Congress imposed restraints on the FBI’s domestic political surveillance, COINTELPRO used informants, undercover agents, and provocateurs to disrupt organizations ranging from the nonviolent American Friends Service Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to militant extremists of the Black Panthers, Weatherman, the Klans, and American Nazis. . . . Although the full extent of the FBI’s infiltration and provocation of radical groups was not revealed until the mid-1970s, leftists in particular were acutely aware of the tactics federal and local law enforcement agencies were using to disrupt their organizing efforts. Many who witnessed this government interference in lawful organizing efforts concluded that social change could no longer be accomplished through traditional political means. Revolution, they felt, was the only solution. (p. 12)
With the use of such evidence and capitalizing on the prevailing atmosphere of paranoia, WDU leadership was able to rationalize the institution of the most convoluted and extreme forms of security rules and regulations. These served a variety of purposes:
–to keep members from talking amongst themselves about taboo topics (such as real names, personal or political histories, locations of party facilities, what went on at meetings);
–to generate mistrust about a particular member when neces-sary (for example, implying that someone was an agent and calling on members to be cautious and even shun); and
–to create feelings of defensiveness, paranoia, and isolation, which eventually separated members from social, political, and family networks outside the organization.
For the individual member, living under these very stringent security policies added to the growing sense of alienation from society and thus increased dependence on the organization. For the leadership, the result was an enhanced ability to control the members.
During the recruitment process, these security rules were used to discourage the recruit from asking too many questions. Also it allowed the recruiters to remain vague in what answers they did give. Details about size of member-ship, racial or sexual composition, geographic location, who else were members, or exactly what kind of work a new member might be doing were not to be discussed. It was explained that this type of information was confidential, that it was exactly the kind of “hard” information the State would love to get its hands on. It was not long before a new recruit learned that leaks of hard information led to things like the planned police disruption and eventual destruction of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups.
The outcome of such security lessons was that a recruit was in fact told very little and was urged to act on faith. At the same time, certain deceptions were used to entice someone to join. Most of the recruits coming out of Women and the State, for example, were told that they were joining a national organization with “cells” around the country and in Canada, and that it was solely a women’s organization. In reality, at the time, the group was barely larger than the original 13 founders, it existed only in San Francisco, and it included both women and men. Similarly, African-American and Hispanic recruits were commonly led to believe that the WDU had a large and growing multinational membership, when, in fact, it did not. In the end, recruiters said whatever would work.
If it wasn’t obvious already to the recruit, the concern for security that was emphasized during the final intake interviews brought to the fore the realization that he or she was about to join a secret, clandestine formation. A jumble of emotions — fear, anticipation, confusion, excitement, relief — overwhelmed the new recruit upon being told that he or she had been accepted.
From that moment on, life took on new meaning, as well as a new reality. A rush of instructions, a wealth of study materials, a list of security guidelines, a seemingly endless series of meetings, all wrapped up in new responsibilities and new obligations — new things to remember and old things to forget. Life became long hours of work, criticism, and study sessions with new comrades; recruits experienced a shared sense of commitment and a growing feeling of solidarity and togetherness. Within a matter of weeks, a new member’s entire world revolved around the internal life of the organization. It happened almost imperceptibly. Being asked to do more was a sign of greater acceptance and trust on the part of the leader-ship; agreeing to do more was a show of willingness to make the commitment on the part of the new member. Any resistance was met with criticism, signaling a weak link. Soon all personal activities fell by the wayside — softball on Saturday afternoons, women’s karate lessons, evening classes, weekend trips with friends, shooting pool in a bar at night, even visits with family or friends.
In a letter written after the WDU’s dissolution, I tried to explain to former friends how it happened in my case:
Having been a loner for so many years, and suddenly finding myself with exciting political realizations coupled with a strong feminist leaning, I was immediately attracted to an organization founded by women, supposedly nondogmatic and serious. I was 30 years old and now willing to make a commit-ment. I had tried a lot of things and had come to realize that there really is strength in numbers.
I was naturally wary upon joining (especially with all the secretive-ness I didn’t really know exactly what I was joining), and accepting the discipline was the hardest for me. But overall I wanted to believe and to belong. I didn’t want to be alone anymore and I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. For me, becoming part of a serious political organization seemed like a way to unselfishly make my mark on history.
I liked the idea of being part of an elite. I liked the claim that we were to be strong and without emotion. I liked the idea that personal choices and desires were to be subordinate to our political mission. I felt respected, cared for, recognized. What I didn’t know was that playing by the rules meant losing myself, that total submission creates total dominance as a counterpart, and that the loss of self-respect, self-caring, and self-recognition brings on a slow and painful death.
But in the beginning I believed in it. I believed because politically and personally I wanted to find an answer, because this seemed to be a genuine attempt at building something different within the Left. From the onset, I yielded, painfully and sacrificingly, to every criticism. I gave up my style of dress, I changed my identity, I took on a party attitude toward everything. And I was spotted as a leader and soon became one. I was trained by the top to despise my former self and build a party-identified image. My pre-party self-image as a strong, intelligent, independent woman was turned into a devotion to the party. I really wanted this to work and I wanted to have a family again.
Joining the party, then, was the logical outcome of my political beliefs as they had developed and my personal beliefs in wanting to help create a better world. Although from the first I resisted the discipline, I had no reason to doubt the ideology; rather I believed in it fiercely. I gave myself up to it — and in the fervor of those beliefs I wanted to help build the party, to make it something strong and viable. And so I became a leader, a teacher, a recruiter.
Life on the Inside
Once Doreen Baxter was asked by a curious outsider (who later became a member) how exactly she was able to build such a strong and mindful organization. “How do you get all those people to abide by the discipline, to follow orders all the time?” he asked. Baxter leaned over in her chair, stared him in the eye, and replied, “With a little carrot and a lot of stick.”
The indoctrination process was two-fold: 1) the inculcation of necessary ideological beliefs gleaned from the intensive study of Marxist political theories, and 2) the inculcation of necessary behavioral changes brought about by the relentless practice of criticism/self-criticism (both written and verbal) and by the collective examination of personal (or class) histories.
In the WDU, criticism/self-criticism was a process by which a person was made to account for some statement or action that was seen to be antiparty or politically incorrect. It was believed that any act or thought was legitimate material for scrutiny and for what Baxter called “class-stand analysis.” This could be brought up by the individual or by another member or leadership. All criticisms were to be “accepted,” that is, internalized for the purpose of “reforming your class standpoint.” Chairman Mao’s exhortation to “find the kernel of truth in every criticism” was a handy maxim used to squelch any defensiveness in response to a criticism or any attempt to challenge an incorrect criticism.
The collective critiques of someone’s class history were lengthy and grueling, often taking up most, if not the entire agenda, of an eight- or ten-hour meeting. Written and then oral presentations of each member’s family background and personal history were evaluated from the extremely critical stance of what was or wasn’t for or against the working class. Again following Mao’s tenet that “every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class,” these sessions became a kind of relentless and often torturous political autopsy that did not finish until the person adopted the “correct class analysis” of his or her life up to the point of joining the organization.
Both of these techniques (criticism/self-criticism and class histories), readily accepted as invaluable means of re-education and remolding, were especially formulated on the Chinese model. The use of these remolding approaches intensified and became even more directed during the first few years of the WDU’s existence. In fact, the sessions on class histories that were held by the founders were merely a factual and chronological recounting of one’s background. It was, however, the next round of recruits and those after who were subjected to the kind of badgering and grueling interrogations that became the initiation ritual of party member-ship. Similarly, the harshness and viciousness of the criticism sessions soon became the norm, led by founders and early members who were all well trained in leading these sessions.
In the early period, two books were used as basic texts for under-standing the political effectiveness of these processes and for learning how to carry them out. One was Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village by William Hinton (1966), which describes in detail the “over-turning” of the villagers’ thinking from backward and counterrevolutionary to pro-Maoist and revolutionary. “Fanshen” means to turn over. In Long Bow village this was done by the Red Guards inciting the residents to take up the revolutionary cause, with hours and days of mass meetings for public confessions, criticisms, and denunciations before fellow villagers. Eventually the majority of the population of Long Bow expressed unity with the people’s revolution.
The other book studied carefully was Prisoners of Liberation by Allyn and Adele Rickett (1973), a description of four years spent in a Chinese communist prison on charges of espionage. During this time (the early 1950s), the Ricketts underwent what became known as the Chinese thought reform process. They returned home to the U.S. as self-confessed spies and in complete support of the Chinese revolution.
Along with Baxter’s (and later also her second-in-command Sandra’s) specific direction on how criticism sessions and class histories were to be carried out, these two books, plus Baxter’s rewrite of Frank Meyer’s (1961) The Moulding of Communists (see above, footnote 4), were the basis for the development of the WDU’s use of highly effective, probing techniques. In fact, these methods came to more or less dominate the group’s existence — an existence characterized by almost continual denunciation and self-confession.
Although a variety of internal structures existed at different times in the WDU’s history, there was a commonality to all of them. One mainstay was the weekly meeting, initially called the Development Group, and eventually called the Branch meeting, in the tradition of other communist parties. The average Branch had 10 to 12 members, but at times could have 20 or more. Everyone (except General Secretary Doreen Baxter) went to the weekly meeting, either as part of the collective leadership or as a member. As the organization grew and others were promoted to upper- and middle-level leadership positions, Sandra also was exempt from attending Branch. The meeting’s agenda was modeled on the typical communist party meeting: discussions of the “practice” (that is, the current organizing work), recruitment review, political study, one or more criticisms, and collection of dues. In the early years, the Branch met on Saturdays, from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Once the WDU was more actively involved in public work (“mass practice”) and especially electoral work, the Branch meeting was changed to Friday nights, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. — or later.
Other regular weekly meetings included New Members Class, Party School, and Remolding Group. In 1975 and part of 1976, those members considered by Baxter to be particularly resistant to change were put into a Remolding Group. For example, after Miriam was criticized for not defending Baxter’s interests against Helene, she was removed from the Central Committee and put in a Remolding Group for re-education. Here members were subjected to an even more intense level of criticism and self-examination. This group was led by Brenda, one of the founders, with detailed guidance from Baxter on what to criticize and how to carry out the struggle sessions. Brenda gave detailed reports, in writing and verbally in Central Committee meetings, on the progress of the Remolding Group.
Party School focused on the concentrated study of Training of the Cadre, the WDU manual that spelled out Baxter’s version of cadre development. Party School met weekly (sometimes biweekly). Each group had about 20 members. Unlike the Branch, which had a collective leadership of two or three, Party School had only one person in leader-ship. Party School was touted as elite training. Here, the criticism was to be more intense than what went on in the Branch, going more to the core of the member’s commitment. Criticism focused more on thoughts and feelings rather than actual mistakes or actions. Only a small, select group was chosen to be Party School teachers. This group received special training from Sandra (in consultation with Baxter) in how to lead the study and criticism. Party School started in 1976 and was reinstituted sporadically, for perhaps several months at a time, throughout the early years. In later years, this type of formal, intensive cadre training was discontinued.
New Members Class was started also in 1976 to accommodate the growing membership. It was to serve as a more organized way of impart-ing party discipline and party norms. Classes met weekly, comprised of six to eight newly accepted members and two teachers. The goal was to “break” the new members — that is, leadership was to concentrate on moving each new member from the shaky, uncertain commitment normal upon joining to a firm and unwavering devotion to the party.
All of the structures and techniques were clearly meant to change the individual member. These methods were successful a hundred times over. Baxter created the most loyal and rigid followership. Once at a Central Committee meeting, shortly after the Jonestown massacre, a CC member dared to question what we were creating. “I’m afraid we’re a cult,” he said. “How are we different from the Moonies?” he rather painfully asked. Baxter’s answer, which afterwards got included in early party training, seemed to erase any doubts: “We are not a cult,” she professed, “and we’re not brainwashed. Why? Because we willingly and consciously submit to cadre transformation. Transformation is our goal!”
The New Member
At all times, it was understood that a new member was to be integrated as quickly as possible into the life and norms of the party. This was done by paying a lot of attention to the new member, and by getting him or her involved in lots of meetings and lots of party work, surrounded by lots of other party members.
Loss of Identity
Upon acceptance, a new member was instructed to choose a “party name,” just a first name. From this point on, identification was by this name only; immediately members (now referred to as “militants”) learned others’ party names. Militants were told never to reveal their real name to other members, not even to roommates. Party names were used in all party meetings or gatherings, in all party offices, and in all houses where party members lived. For the new member, taking on a party name was the first stage in losing his or her pre-party identity and taking on a party-molded one.
Militants who violated the party-name rule (that is, mistakenly used their own or another member’s real name) were severely reprimanded for committing a security breach. For example, I recruited a long-time friend into the party. We became housemates while she was still a relatively new member, perhaps seven months into the party. After a visit by her mother, my friend was harshly denounced for having called me by my real name during the time her mother was with us. The short-sightedness here is that her mother already knew me since her daughter and I had been friends before the party. Certainly it would have seemed bizarre to her if suddenly I had a different name. To add to this, I, in fact, was the one who reported my friend for the security violation. This type of behavior is typical of the rigidity with which members followed party rules and were accustomed to report on one another. It also is characteristic of what became for each member (and for the leadership) an inability to see beyond the world we created. The degree of internalization of party norms was profound — and quite successful from the party’s point of view.
At the same time as being told about party names, a new member was told (1) to get a post office or rental mail box for receiving all mail; (2) to change the name on household utility bills to an alias; (3) to not subscribe to any publications, particularly leftist publications, in a real name; and (4) to change car registrations and driver’s licenses to either a “safe” address (i.e., the home of an apolitical friend) or the mail box address. This was another step in the personal burial process.
After being told about party names and instructed in some of the basic security rules, new members were given meeting assignments. At a minimum, a new member had a weekly Branch meeting, a weekly New Members meeting, a weekly one-help meeting, and, in certain years, a weekly Party School meeting. Along with this came an assignment to a work unit. Naturally, it was expected that more and more time would be given to the work unit. Eventually, it was demanded.
Sometime in 1976, a “one-help” system was set up. This was a type of buddy system. Every new member, upon joining, was assigned a one-help. The new member and the one-help met weekly; the one-help was to assist the new member in integration into party life. The new member was supposed to tell everything to the one-help, all thoughts, questions, or feelings about the organization. One-helps were to help new members get “objective” about what was really going on, were to assist them in “seeing things from a party point of view,” were to coach them in scheduling their time and figuring out how they could do even more for the organization.
The one-help wrote detailed reports about everything the new member said and did. These reports were sent to the Branch leadership, to the New Members class teachers, to the Party School teacher, and to Staff/New Members (the administrative team, who under Sandra’s direct guidance oversaw the training and development of all new members). These reports were used to monitor development and to pick out something that could serve as the basis of a group criticism in future meetings, in order to facilitate “breaking” the new member.
The more meat for criticism in the one-help report, the better the one-help. Just about every militant at one time or another was assigned to be a one-help to a new member. It was described as a sign of a militant’s develop-ment and of the party’s trust to be given this task. The widespread use of this assignment helped institutionalize the incessant reporting on one another and the fear of fellow comrades.
A New Member’s First Assignments
New members were assigned to write their class histories, which would be read by leadership and then analyzed in New Members class. All the other new members in the class were expected to participate in the dissection of whoever was on the spot. It was presumed that a new member’s class history wouldn’t be “right” at first. How could an “uninformed” and “uninstructed” new member possibly have a correct analysis without the benefit of the party’s training? And so began the ritual of tearing apart the person next to you.
Depending on the class members’ response to the oral presentation, along with whatever weaknesses the teachers had decided to focus on before-hand, invariably class histories had to be rewritten more than once. The idea was to get a new member to rewrite and therefore accept his or her history from the correct political standpoint, that is, from the party’s point of view.
Another first assignment for a new member was to do an overall recruitment report. This meant doing a written summary of all external contacts, or absolutely everyone who was not already in the party. For some people, these reports could be very long and took a great deal of time. The new member was to identify who was recruitable among the friends, relatives, and co-workers listed in the report.
The initial recruitment report, the class history, and the written application for membership were key in providing the party with complete information about each new member. For the new member, these were all steps in the process of turning over one’s entire life to the party.
When admitted into the party, new members were told that they were in Trial Member status. They had no rights. They were to learn. If they passed this stage (based on study, level of participation, and good behavior), they would be recommended by their leadership to be moved up to status of Candidate Member, with partial voting rights. Baxter had final say in these advancements. Promotions occurred at the Branch meeting, complete with a formal ceremony: A pledge was read by the leading officer, the Executive Officer, followed by affirmative responses from the eager Candidate-to-be. The thrust of the pledge was vowing to an even greater commitment to the class struggle and a willingness to work hard and be devoted. The ceremony ended with leadership pinning a red star on the new Candidate, who then was hugged by both the Executive and Political Officers. This was followed by a collective song (“The International”) and congratulations.
The Pressures to Conform
Within moments after joining, it became clear to the new member that submission to the organization was the ruling principle. There was intense pressure to conform. Any group meeting was one obvious place where this came into play and the tone was set. For example, the leadership would give a presentation on a change in the direction of some work or would open up a denunciation of a comrade for some error. Once the leadership finished, each militant would be expected to say how much he or she agreed with the presentation or the criticism. Ideally, each person was to say something different from what had already been said; but more to the point each person was expected to agree with (“unite with”) whatever was going on. Questions, should there be any, had to be couched within an overall agreement. After years of this kind of participation, people were quite incapable of any kind of creative or critical thinking, could only parrot each other, and had shrunken vocabularies riddled with arcane internal phraseology.
If someone was too silent during one of these meetings, or didn’t speak heartily enough, or dared to express any doubt, that person would be singled out for criticism by the leadership. This would give license to a verbal attack by the rest of the group, with lots of derogatory name-calling (supposedly in a political context). A person could be called selfish, disrespectful, self-centered, stupid, stubborn, negative, chickenshit, or mindless (a party favorite); a person could be accused of undermining leadership, factionalizing, acting like an agent provocateur or a right-wing deviationist. Or a person could simply be called a lot of sometimes very personal, sometimes very filthy, and usually very hurtful things. At a moment’s notice, the entire direction of a meeting could be turned into a group denunciation of someone. When finally given a chance to respond, the comrade was usually criticized again — and this could go on for hours! “It was like chickens pecking at blood. You had to or you’d get pecked,” said one former member.
Until the leadership accepted the “sincerity” of the response, the criticized militant was not to be let off the hook. This process could be and often was carried into future meetings — the next day, the next week, or the next several weeks. In the meantime, the militant’s behavior was monitored more than usual by leadership and he or she was generally shunned by the others. This comrade walked on eggs, with a biting, clenching pit in the stomach, a gnawing pressure in the chest, waiting for the tension to be released, for re-acceptance into the group, to no longer be the focal point of angry criticism, unbridled moralism, and pent-up emotions. Over time, living with this unsettling internal anxiety and feeling of impending doom became the way militants faced every waking hour.
The Leadership Principle
From the beginning, new members were instilled with an utter and absolute respect for Doreen Baxter. Actually, this process began during recruitment meetings. Baxter was talked about as the ultimate working-class heroine. She was lauded for knowing more about Marxism, world politics, revolution, and life than anyone else. She was praised as a genius and a revolutionary leader, in the tradition of Lenin and Mao. She was recognized as both the organizational and theoretical leadership.
Members were taught that they would be nothing without Doreen Baxter, that there would be no party without her. She was to be defended at all costs. She was, members were told, overworked and overburdened. Soon it came to be understood as part of this logic that the undue stress on her was caused by the incompetence of the members. Because of this, members were to do anything, make any sacrifice to make her life better, more comfort-able, so that, for once, she could do the work that a revolutionary leader should do.
As the party grew in size, fewer and fewer members actually saw or met Baxter. She shuttled back and forth between her country and city residences, the whereabouts known only by a small circle of trusted militants. In the last few years of the WDU, Baxter made perhaps one, or, at most, two appearances before the entire membership. This was usually at some special function, such as the annual all-party Assembly. At the WDU’s last Assembly, in 1985, Baxter sent her communique by modem; it was an unintelligible poem. This lack of visibility to the general membership made Baxter even more mysterious and awesome.
The First Purge
Just after Christmas 1976, Doreen Baxter ordered the party’s first purge, or mass expulsion of members. Formally it was called the “Campaign Against Lesbian Chauvinism and Bourgeois Feminism”; in later years it was referred to simply as “the lesbian purge.” Even though the party’s membership was always mixed (in both gender and sexual preference), in the early years there were still a good number of lesbian members since much of the recruiting had been done in those friendship networks, as described earlier. The purge was carried out under a political pretext, with Baxter providing a new theoretical “line” on homosexuality to support her actions. This purge, which came out of the blue, served many purposes.
First and foremost, it highlighted that the party was always right and had unmitigated power over the members’ lives. In addition, it struck terror into people’s hearts: someone could be here one day, gone tomorrow — including a mate or spouse. The investigation surrounding the campaign, with probing interviews and search-and-seizure tactics, left nothing sacred. Afterwards, carrying around a feeling of terror lurking at every turn became for everyone an accepted way to live.
The purge also helped to institute one of the main control mechanisms: the method of pitting people against each other to breed mistrust and foster loyalty only to Baxter. She started this precedent with the lesbians in the party, but eventually every possible grouping or type was subjected to this treatment. There were campaigns against and purges of party men, party parents, party intellectuals, those with a political past, those from middle-class (“petty-bourgeois”) background, those with middle-class or educated skills, certain friendship networks (e.g., a group of friends who moved from Seattle to join); it simply had no boundaries. This divisive tactic went on and on over the years ensuring that no one would trust anyone else.
The Lesbian Chauvinism Campaign also set the tone and style for future purges and mass trials. A booklet was produced almost overnight to be distributed partywide for study and discussion. Militants were identified, their so-called “crimes” described, their punishments highlighted. Other than those who were expelled without trial and never heard from again, each accused militant was ordered to come before a body of members to face criticism and denunciation. Many were suspended, unable to participate in any party activity and cut off from everyone, for anywhere from three to six weeks. During this time there were more “struggle sessions” and self-criticisms to be written. In effect, people’s lives (and minds) were shattered. Many women lost their loved ones; good friends were afraid to be close again; those who were readmitted were beaten down and turned their entire lives around. Some never had relationships again; some became heterosexual in preference.
And last but not least, the Lesbian Chauvinism Campaign served to break up a key friendship network. Those who were “named” in this campaign were either founders or part of the first ring of members to join soon after the party’s founding. They were some of the hardest workers, most politically dedicated, and fervently loyal followers. Many were in middle-level leadership positions. Many were perhaps people who in some way posed a threat to Baxter.
The Role of Middle-Level Leadership
After the WDU’s dissolution, three ex-members (including myself) who had been in leadership wrote a document in an effort to describe to the former membership exactly what went on in leadership circles. The following excerpts clarify the role of those in middle-level leadership and, once again, highlight the destructive behavior so typical to the WDU.
There was a shared view [among those in leadership] that only the militants in leadership could understand about Baxter’s craziness and thus we had to hide this from everyone else. We saw ourselves not as more malleable but as more mature and more committed. Our role was to make her guidance palatable and political, instead of the name-calling and incoherence that it started as. We kept Baxter away from the rest of the party and interpreted her actions. There was conscious collusion in keeping the secret. In our minds, though, it was the militants who were the problem, not Baxter’s behavior. . . .
There were several inner rings surrounding the inner circle. Leadership of work units or Branches saw their job as forging unity not generating decision making. This emanated from Baxter, but the middle level took their little positions and enforced this with a vengeance. We cannot remember a leader-ship meeting where it was seen as a good thing to have a healthy debate. Rather individual members and their ideas were picked apart to be dismissed or brought into line. Recalcitrant leadership or those who tried to defend militants were quickly denounced, made fun of, and/or removed as leadership.
There was gossip and incredible disrespect shown toward militants when they were being discussed in leadership meetings (or casual conversation). In preparation for Branch criticisms the most irrelevant mistake would be made into a case against an individual. Collective attitudes were adopted based on off-the-cuff or informal reflecting comments by Baxter or other top leader-ship; these attitudes would then lead people to being disrespected or kept down for long periods of time. With a mere phrase you would know the correct attitude toward “X” militant.
The most intimate things about militants were discussed jokingly, pejoratively, and with utter contempt. Personality quirks, health problems, a desire to have children, whether you were liked by or “got along with” Baxter or other upper-level leader-ship, or an error from years past were held against people and re-raised without fail if someone in leadership suggested the “wrong” militant for an assignment. Militants were boxed into stereotypes for years: Don’t ever give “A” any leadership, Baxter can’t stand her. “B” is good at numbers, let her stay there, she’s no good anywhere else. Baxter hates x about “Y,” don’t ever let him do anything again. “Z” is valuable to us, therefore keep his wife happy and out of the way. Promotions, demotions, and assignments were based on subjective judgments, prejudices, and favoritism.
There was an overall attitude that leadership was more competent than the militants. Militants were blamed often for problems. Any so-called consulting with the membership, if done at all, was perfunctory. . . .
Our role as middle-level leadership was to serve Baxter or the next level above us, to drop everything at a moment’s notice to run here or there for some ad hoc meeting, to sit for hours on end in revolving leadership bodies. Never was our primary role to really serve “the struggle” or even really lead or develop militants in a political way. Rather our role was to keep militants in line, to report on them, or to convince them on some new change in line or new campaign. Militants who perhaps started out showing genuine initiative or asking political questions were seen as threats or control problems. . . .
The norms of the party were not a body of political and ideological standards, but they were what Baxter and others wanted done. Norms were made up and changed to get someone to join or stay. . . . Norms often changed due to one of Baxter’s rages not due to any thoughtful or measured discussion. Militants were told that directions were changing because of Baxter’s “brilliance and insight,” which became cover words for the lack of democratic discussion or real political thought. Even when there were reports or lip service paid to partywide discussion of something, in the end it was Baxter who made the pronouncements and made the decisions. The rest of the leadership’s job was to uphold them and convince everyone else to. . . .
Even though the party had a “democratically elected” Central Committee, the party, in fact, was led by Baxter and the groupings she chose to be around her. Some Central Committees never met from the time they were elected to the time they were dissolved. There were never any protests of the rubber-stamp nature of virtually all of our meetings. The Central Committee as a body became a formality to give credence to Baxter’s leader-ship, and middle-level leadership never took seriously what this meant to the base of the party. All of the annual party Assemblies were staged performances, thought through to the minutest detail.
The true objective of just about everything that went on was to bond the militants to the party. . . . Everything was focused on keeping things controlled. . . . Nothing ever had anything to do with democracy. . . .
Why did we do this? Why did we betray our own personal and political integrity and basic decent instincts? Why did we stay quiet when we knew things were wrong? Because we gave in to the peer pressure, the criticism, and the perks. The perks weren’t glorious, but compared to the lives of [lower-level] militants, we had certain privileges of power, security (albeit fleeting), control of criticism sessions, and a certain amount of being able to do more interesting things. In sum, middle-level leadership functioned with elitism, corruption, and lack of political principle.
Of course, as with everything else, no one’s job was sacrosanct. Except for very few favored members, being in middle-level leadership was a revolving-door cycle: one day in, next day out. One mechanism for keeping middle-levels on their toes was the Control Officer. For years, each Branch and each facility had a Control Officer. The CO’s job was to watch everyone and everything that went on but especially to catch out the middle-level leadership at some mistake. For example, if, in a meeting, a militant said something really “off” (i.e., antiparty) and it slipped by whoever was leading the meeting, this was fuel for the CO’s report. “Grist for the mill,” as it was called, or a reason to criticize, was what the CO looked for, feeding into constant criticism — the lifeblood of the organization. Having a CO around naturally kept leadership militants edgy and paranoid. In the end, no one, except Baxter herself, was safe from minute-by-minute observation and potential denunciation.
It is almost unfathomable to ponder the level of bureaucracy (and the amount of paper) that existed in the WDU. Information control is a source of power; and Baxter’s organization was very good at it, including setting up strict security rules to hem in each aspect of the bureaucracy. Whenever Baxter decided there was too much information on paper, or that some freak incident should sound a security alert, a cleansing would be ordered, with assigned militants serving lengthy shifts at the party’s great shredders.
On one occasion, fondly remembered as the “big burn,” which took place in early 1976, all members were ordered to destroy any piece of paper that could in any way be “revealing” (which meant any trace of information about the person’s background, likes or dislikes, political leanings, sexual preference, family origin, and so forth). This era predated the shredder; thus, one by one militants brought great bundles and suitcases jammed with personal items to be turned over to the party for disposal. Three of us were assigned to burn these precious documents and mementos. We sat for three days and three nights, throwing the lives of our comrades into the fire: passports, photographs, diaries, poetry, artwork, treasured writings and notes, packets of correspondence, health records, marriage certificates, and on and on. The excuse in this case was a security breach that threatened the safety of the party. The effect was the destruction of identities and memories — another step in the remolding process.
Small or large, bureaucratic measures served to control information — in and out — and to control members’ lives.
The Financial Net
All members were expected to pay weekly dues, based on their salary. Dues were increased once the initial stage of membership was passed. Often this came as a great surprise to advancing Trial Members and was invariably cause for “class-stand struggle.” The dues structure was set up so that each militant was to give over to the party all monies received above the party’s standard living amount, which was set at practically poverty-level. Any monetary or substantial gifts, job bonuses, legal settlements, and inheritances belonged to the party. They were to be reported immediately in writing to Staff/Finance in order to arrange payment or transfer of ownership. Members were told that everyone lived on the same amount, about $650/month in the last year of the party (1985). In reality, certain favored or more clever members finagled higher monthly allowances from the party or kept secret the gifts they received from their families. This was, however, a very small minority. Baxter, with two well-furnished homes, a new sports car, all the latest electronic equipment, money in IRA’s, and so forth, easily lived on the equivalent of more than $100,000 per year. Her lavish life-style was known about only by the inner circle and a handful of trusted lower-level militants.
There was a fairly complex financial system staffed by several militants. Their job was to figure out the number of members who needed to be working at outside jobs in any given period to feed enough dues money into the organization to keep the infrastructure running and to keep Baxter living in her customary style. Full-time functionaries (those who didn’t have outside jobs and worked solely for the party) were encouraged to find an outside source of income (for example, money from their families). If they couldn’t, they received monthly cash stipends from the party. Naturally, they had none of the benefits of outside work, such as medical insurance, pension plans, and payments into social security.
Dues were collected at the first Branch meeting of each month. This was done privately with the Financial Officer. As can be imagined, a rather large amount of cash was turned in at these meetings. Afterwards, the Financial Officer left immediately, accompanied by an appointed guard. Their leaving or speculation about where they were going was never to be discussed. They went to a secret location, where each Branch’s Financial Officer came to meet with a representative of Staff/Finance to turn over the monthly take. This transaction was done with a great deal of efficiency and seriousness. It was regarded as an assignment of great honor to be trusted with the party’s money.
In general, militants were very poor. They dressed shabbily, drove broken-down cars, lived in sparsely furnished places, usually in the poorer sections of town. They had no money to spare, no savings. Often if they didn’t meet their fund-raising or paper-selling goals, they made up the difference out of their own pockets, making a bad situation even worse. At times, militants were known to sell their blood to get money for food.
The Paper Empire
Party members had many other responsibilities in addition to the weekly meeting and duties related to the work unit. These varied over the years depending on the prevailing internal or external focus.
First of all, there were always many reports to write, and each had to follow a particular format. Reports due at the weekly meeting could include a discipline report, a security report, an assigned or self-motivated self-criticism, a recruitment report, a one-help report, and organizing reports. At a minimum, for years, everyone turned in weekly discipline and security reports. A discipline report was a written record of all errors (of thought or deed) committed during the past week. A security report was a written record of any security violations committed by a militant, or observed in any other militant, during the past week. These reports would be used by the leadership to monitor behavior and ferret out criticisms for the following week. They were also used to evaluate a militant’s progress and willingness to conform.
For those in middle-level leadership, reports were also due on whatever meetings they led, on specific members as requested by their leadership, and on the development of new members. These reports included how the criticisms went and how the person responded, how the political study went, a general evaluation of members’ participation and expressed unity with the prepared party presentations, and a self-criticism regarding problems with the meeting or errors. These reports were used by the next level of leadership to look for sources of criticisms to be carried out in the various leadership bodies, such as Branch Council (the weekly meeting of all Branch officers), Party School Teachers meeting, New Members Teachers meeting, Political Officers meeting, Recruitment Officers meeting, and so forth.
There were two types of recruitment reports. Some summarized formal recruitment meetings that had taken place, with suggestions for the next step to be taken with the recruit. Others were lists of potential recruits from among acquaintances, co-workers, family, or long lost friends. There were few periods when there was not an emphasis on recruitment. Therefore, it was important to have some names to turn in on a recruit-ment report. Not doing so ensured getting criticized for not helping to build the organization. Recruitment reports went to the Branch leadership and to Staff/Recruitment (the administrative team who oversaw all of the party’s recruitment). Guidance on how to proceed came back from Staff/Recruitment via the Branch’s Recruitment Officer. If there were to be criticisms of someone related to recruitment, guidance was given to that militant’s leadership at the weekly leadership Council meeting.
Most of this bureaucracy was run and led by Sandra, with daily and sometimes hourly reporting to or communication with Baxter. Baxter came to leadership councils on rare occasions — usually when a particular-ly serious and severe criticism was about to come someone’s way. As middle-level leaders arrived at council meetings, hearts dropped at seeing Baxter sitting at the front table.
The Work Ethic
Work was never done individually but was done in collective situations. At first, work went on at selected members’ houses, those houses that the party considered to be “secure.” Later, houses and commercial spaces were rented to be set up specifically as “party facilities.” Everyone worked at one or another of these locations, depending on his or her assignment. For example, one house served as the party’s staff headquarters for all internal administrative work. A warehouse space was rented to serve as the production headquarters and printing press. Another space housed the data bank and research institute. Yet another was a labor organizing center or the public office of one of the WDU’s electoral efforts. Baxter’s city home and Sandra’s apartment were considered to be party facilities, with certain militants assigned there to perform infrastructure duties (maid and clerical work) for these leaders.
Knowing the existence of or being allowed to go to any one of the party locations depended on the party’s degree of trust in a particular member. Most often a militant worked only at one location and knew only of that one location. All locations had code names, including all party houses where militants lived. Militants were never to tell anyone (in or out of the party) which location they worked at or what they did there. They were never to tell anyone where their weekly meeting was held, who was in it, who led it, or what went on at the meeting.
All of the facilities (even the ones that had public faces, such as the party-run businesses) were supposed to be secret locations. In some years, cars had to be parked at least two and one-half blocks, around corners, from any party house or location. While at a party facility, it was a security regulation that no one could make or receive phone calls so that the State would not be able to trace calls to these locations. For many years, it was a rule that no calls could be made from one party house to another party house. Public telephones, at least two blocks away, were to be used for any party-related call.
The facilities were run by a leadership structure put in place by the top administrative section. Much of the time in the facilities was spent in group meetings making collective criticisms of someone. So much time was spent in these sessions that everyone generally had to stay later than the scheduled hours to get the actual work accomplished.
1) internal staff duties, or the administration necessary to keep the party running, such as
–maintaining membership records,
–planning and monitoring recruitment,
–holding study and training sessions for middle-level leadership,
–doing evaluations of the membership for Sandra’s and/or Baxter’s review,
–planning criticisms, denunciations, and trials,
–overseeing party finances,
–maintaining security files,
–carrying out investigations,
–doing guard duty,
–planning protests and demonstrations;
2) running complex businesses, such as a graphics, type, and print shop, a publishing house, a doctors’ office, and a research institute;
3) doing organizing work, either workplace, electoral, or community-based, including running campaigns or sponsoring candidates in labor unions and municipal bodies;
4) doing intellectual work, such as research, writing, going to academic and international conferences, public speaking;
5) doing infrastructure for the top leadership, Baxter and Sandra, which included house cleaning, cooking, laundry, shopping, paying bills, dog walking, running errands, gardening, chauffeuring, clothing alterations, house repairs and/or remodeling, car repairs, delivering messages, entertaining, in sum, any-thing.
Controlling the daily environment was a major means of enforcement. Members were expected to be at their assigned facility (also called a “department”) at all times, except when at an outside job or some other preapproved assignment or meeting. When reporting to a facility, they signed in on a log; they signed out when they left; they had to account for each moment. Militants arrived either early in the morning, or immediately after work, and stayed until late into the night. Militants with outside jobs were not to go home first to change clothes or eat dinner; they were not to stop anywhere else along the way. Generally, people would pick up fast-food on the way in, or would bring a second lunch, or would eat something quick like potato chips, candy bars, and soda, or would not eat at all. Full-time functionaries were expected to be at their facility the time. Functionaries reported to the facility at 9 a.m. (or earlier) and stayed until the end of the evening, generally 11 p.m., and often one to two hours later. Full-time functionaries rarely saw the light of day, much less the changing of seasons.
More often than not, the party was in the midst of some kind of internal or external mobilization which meant working anywhere from 16 to 20 hours a day, sometimes for days on end without sleep or even going home. (An example of an internal mobilization would be carrying out a partywide criticism campaign against sexism; an example of an external campaign would be carrying out work for a party-sponsored candidate for Board of Education.)
The accepted workday at the facility was 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; however, reading, study, and writing self-criticisms and other reports were not to be done at the work facility. That meant doing these things somewhere between midnight and 6 a.m., before the next day started the cycle all over again.
The accepted work week was Monday through Sunday. At some point, it was decided that Sundays should be a day off, for personal errands, laundry, food shopping, paying bills, and calling parents. Even with this understanding, most years most militants never really had a Sunday off, including those party members who were parents themselves. Occasionally militants had half the day off on a Sunday; it was extremely rare to have off an entire Sunday. There was always some work to be done some-where. And if nothing else, there were always reports to write. If by chance some militants did have time off, they usually felt extremely guilty and unable to relax or enjoy themselves knowing that other comrades were working.
Most often, work assignments had little to do with a person’s previous skills or training, or with their preferences. Doctors were given production work; intellectuals were put in typing pools. This was supposed to teach humility. In later years, however, this type of assigning was less the norm and was used only for periods of punishment (for example, a party intellectual under criticism might be assigned to work in the bindery for a time in order to be taught a lesson). Over time, there came to be an obvious distinction between mental and manual labor, resulting in a somewhat privileged group of intellectuals and administrative leadership and another somewhat disregarded group of lower-level workers. This rather glaring class division would never have been admitted to, since the party thought of itself as a microcosm of a perfect socialist society — with equality and justice for all members.
Besides the weekly meeting, the work unit, and the required reports, each member had many other responsibilities. These included fund-raising quotas, paper-selling quotas, recruitment quotas, petition-signature quotas, and volunteer-activation quotas. Beginning with the electoral organizing work (around 1978), fund-raising became and remained an obsession. Militants were required to sell a vast array of things: buttons with political slogans or the party’s name, political posters, party literature (books, journals, and pamphlets), raffle tickets, the party’s political program, tickets to party-sponsored political film series, even candy bars.
In addition, members were supposed to be studying the party’s political and theoretical lines, which were put out either in internal documents or in public literature. A rather prolific group, the WDU produced a biweekly, bilingual newspaper with a monthly theoretical insert, an academic Marxist quarterly journal, another rather specialized radical academic journal, a labor bulletin, and a multitude of internal pamphlets and handouts, usually related to a current internal discipline or rectification campaign. Also, there were thousands and thousands of political leaflets written and produced by the party that were handed out throughout the Bay Area. These gave the party’s viewpoint on a local strike, a community cause, a ballot issue, a presidential candidate, and so forth. After 1981, the party’s publishing operation also put out several books and journals each year, managing to get them distributed and sold through normal book-trade channels.
In the early years, members also studied select literature by other groups on the Left, as well as articles and books in the fields of history (U.S. and interna-tional), international economics, political science, political theory, and so forth. Most, but not all, of this reading was by authors representing a leftist perspective. As with some of the other training, the amount and type of study dwindled with the party’s growth. By the late 1970s, party members were reading only party materials, most of it supposedly authored by Baxter. (In the later years, Baxter in fact wrote very little, if any, of the material credited to her.) By the early 1980s, political study was a low priority, rarely on the agenda of any weekly meeting, and, if so, it was carried out in a superficial and perfunctory manner.
It didn’t take long for this training and life-style to take effect. Members broke from family and friends. There was literally no time for outside activities or outside people. Those with spouses or relationships outside the party were strongly pressured to recruit them or leave them. Each person’s reality became the reality of the internal life of the organization.
In their study of coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control, Ofshe and Singer (1986) suggest that currently “the technology of this sort of influence has developed well beyond what was employed in the Soviet Union and China . . . for the purpose of extracting confessions and carrying out political `thought reform'” (p. 3). Ofshe and Singer defined these as first- and second-generation programs: the former had the backing of State power as a means of both commanding participation and demanding compliance and conformity; the latter need to find more ingenious methods to draw people into initial involvement and then to ensure their acceptance of the authority and rules of the organization.
In order to conduct a coercive influence and behavior control program, an organization must obtain both psychological domi-nance over an individual and a considerable measure of power in the individual’s life. The second necessary element, actual power, is often attained in newer organizations by making the target’s continuing relations with intimates and friends, as well as economic security, contingent upon continuing membership in the organization. . . .
An organization will have maximized its structural and social power over a target if it succeeds in introducing changes into the person’s life such that the individual’s intimates are all subject to its authority and the organization controls the target’s income, employ-ment, capital, and social life. Under these circumstances, a person threatened with expulsion is threatened simultaneously with being cut off from many of the major social supports upon which stability of identity and emotional well-being depend. The controlling organization can create this level of extreme threat since the individuals who matter most to the target are subject to the organization’s authority and will reject the person if the organization does so.
If an organization succeeds in shifting a target’s social ties to other organizational members, it gains the potential to bind the person to the organization in a fashion which far exceeds the binding power of investments, job, and residence. Immersed in a social world in which peer esteem and disapproval are dispensed for conformity to community norms, an individual will find that community standards become the only standards available for self-evaluation. (pp. 3-4)
Even though the WDU was, in a sense, an “old-style” communist cadre organization, it went beyond the kind of training attributed by Ofshe and Singer to first-generation programs. The WDU fits more appropriately with the second-generation organizations because of the depth and intensity of the incessant criticism and the total immersion of one’s life, the complete deployability of the member at the disposal of the leader-ship. “Second-generation programs of coercive influence and behavior control appear to directly attack the core sense of being — the central self-image, the very sense of realness and existence of the self. . . .Alter the self or perish is the motto” (Ofshe and Singer, 1986, p. 18).
In the WDU it was the same: “Those who do not change should be expelled,” pro-claimed Doreen Baxter.
“We Own Her Now”
WDU members were led to believe that they were the best that there was, and, therefore, they had to do their best. Nevertheless, in the party’s eyes, whatever they did was never enough, or never good enough. There was no praise, only criticism. Members were taught that cadres thrive on criticism, that cadres miss criticism if they don’t get it. Cadres don’t like it, but they love it, the party leadership said. On the rare occasion when someone tried to raise the idea that perhaps a comrade was being treated too severely, he or she was quickly blasted as being a wimp and a liberal and reminded of one of Baxter’s favorite sayings: “Criticism can’t make you bleed. Get on with it!” It was a complete double-bind situation. In the name of building a more just and humane world, we proceeded to create a brutal and dehumanized little society.
Anyone in the WDU’s orbit literally was dissected from the minute he or she entered the recruitment process (even when only a name on a list). Once a member, each person was targeted by leadership for “breaking,” “testing,” “induced cadre crises,” whatever would work to get that person to “submit.” Members’ identities were erased, their roots torn out from under them, the entire fabric of their lives previous to the party called into question by an unsparing elitist moral code. Members gave their everything; in return, they were subjected to hours, days, weeks, months, and years of endless, insufferable criticism, demeaning judgments, and attitudes of scorn from leadership. Foul and deprecatory language was used both to militants’ faces in criticism sessions, as well as behind their backs in leadership meetings. Leadership generated the most vicious stereotypes of each member caught in a party-created mold. Members were scrutinized, badgered, crushed, manipulated, and hence molded into a party image — until the only reality to hold onto was the narrow and highly controlled internal reality of the party. It became an environment of denial, disgrace, and obsequiousness to corrupt leaders.
One former member recalled being in a high-level leadership meeting with Baxter, where they were boasting that a prized new member (a woman of color with great leadership potential) had just decided to break her engagement to a man who was never likely to join the party. This was understood to be a sign of her increasing commitment to the party. “Hah, we own her now!” Baxter exclaimed triumphantly. And all the others nodded in agreement and laughed along with her.
Control as a Mechanism
Although the entire organization did not live communally, everyone was encouraged to live in a house with other members (a “party house”). Since militants lived on poverty-level incomes or less, this quickly became a necessity. Anywhere from three to eight members shared a house or an apartment. Each house had a code name and a house captain (chosen by Staff/Security), whose job was to ensure that party regulations were being followed and to communicate any party orders relating to houses (such as earthquake procedures, guidelines for keeping party documents, parking and telephone rules).
The individual had no privacy whatsoever. Militants learned very quickly that a good friend, even a spouse, would report them. There was a constant sense of being watched. Paranoia, mistrust, and defensiveness were spawned in an organization that proclaimed itself as honest, caring, and humane. The justification for the incessant control was that it was the iron discipline necessary to get things done. Militants were instilled with the feeling of being special, chosen, an elite — because they worked so hard for the movement, cared so much, dedicated themselves until they dropped. They were told and they told one another that this extreme degree of control was needed because they all had so many bad, lazy, selfish, corrupt, self-serving, careerist, and petty instincts having come out of normal (“bourgeois”) society. Militants began to believe that if left to their own devices they would only claw one another apart and screw the whole thing up.
Constant fatigue worked its magic day after day, month after month, year after year. Living in a frenzied, tense, fearful state, exacerbated by poor diet and lack of sleep, helped to keep members from thinking clearly, examining doubts, or seeing what their lives had really become. Arriving home exhausted at 11 p.m., midnight, 1 or 2 a.m. on a regular basis left few alternatives. All they could do was maybe drink some wine and drop into bed. There simply was not the time or energy left to make sense out of anything. Any thoughts of leaving the group were pushed aside for fear of shunning, loss of friends, and the punishments and revenge the party was known to exact upon those who tried or asked to leave.
The norm was work, work, and more work. Give everything, put the organization first, forget about the self and petty needs. The excuse of any extreme action was that the ends justified the means. The party consid-ered itself an elite force with its own brand of morality — which meant militants could lie if lying would serve the cause; militants could cheat, be violent, manipulative, whatever it took to meet the goal.
Very soon militants thought of themselves as a family, although that word would not have been used — “family” would have been considered too touchy-feely. Rather, militants looked upon one another as comrades — at home, at work, at meetings, at the party facility. Within a brief period of time after joining, a member had no other life but the party. Anything that wasn’t party-related was regarded as an intrusion on this very special existence, the life of a dedicated cadre. This made it even more possible for all parts of a member’s life to be monitored, scrutinized, reported on, and controlled. The rationale or justification for all of this, whether spoken or not, was sacrifice for the greater good.
As time went on, for most members, there was less and less contact with the outside world. Since militants could never explain to anyone outside the party what they were doing, why they were never home, why they were never available for socializing, how they earned a living, and so forth, it was easier for them simply not to see family or former friends. Militants’ lives became dominated by the daily task, the daily criticism, and whatever political campaign (internal or external) was in focus at the time.
This harsh and unusual life-style was accepted as the sacrifice necessary for the political cause, for the achievements the party supposed-ly was making. Over and over militants were taught that this kind of sacrifice was difficult but do-able. Also, it was explained that cadre life was not meant for everyone; militants were told that they should feel honored to be part of the revolutionary cadre tradition. And finally, it was emphasized that WDU militants had a double responsibility because of their leader, Doreen Baxter, who was special and whose worldview was special, because the WDU alone was the only principled, truly communist group remaining in the North American Left. WDU militants truly believed that there would be no leftist movement if it weren’t for them and their efforts, if it weren’t for the WDU.
Guilt as a Counterforce
Guilt was one of the strongest forces in binding people to the organization and keeping anyone from leaving. The logic went something like this: We had come to this willingly; we knew that it was a hard path and a chosen path. We knew that in fact there were too few cadres, that not everyone was cut out for this life of hardship, sacrifice, and struggle. We were taught to struggle, struggle, struggle — through endless effort and unsparing criticism — to achieve the cadre ideal, which in fact, we were told, can never be achieved. Knowing all this, having accepted this, then, how dare a cadre complain about hard work, long hours, no sleep, no time for friends, no vacations, no money?! We compared ourselves to the fighters against fascism in WWII. Resistance heroes were our role models, as were any communist insurgents. We never for a moment considered that in fact we were not living in a country at war, nor were we a people under siege. We behaved absolutely as though we were and we held ourselves to those standards.
If a militant was on a personal errand (for example, a doctor’s appoint-ment) and the wait was too long, he or she became anxious, angry, hostile because of the guilt and dread felt at being gone from the facility for so long. For WDU members, times away from party work were dominated by the fear of getting criticized when they got back or having to work even later or being reported by a comrade for sloughing off. Going out into the world became a frightful and unpleasant experience, fraught with anxiety. Militants felt that there was something wrong with them if they had these other, nonparty things to do. They began not to do them. Militants canceled, missed, or put off countless medical and dental appointments, car repairs, family gatherings, driver’s license renewals, legal matters, even seeing their children. Militants canceled their own weddings and failed to show up for their own parents’ funerals.
A Taste of Power
Without downplaying the devastating psychological effects of the techniques used by Baxter, her second Sandra, and other top leadership, it is important to look at the type of power dynamic that can be generated in cultic environments. In the WDU, Baxter and Sandra became, in a sense, role models for perverse behavior, while the rest of the member-ship provided the support mechanism for implementing a cruel, violent, and unjust life style. A kind of mob mentality set in, not unlike what’s seen in the mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, or even neighborhood gangs. Acknowledging each person’s participation in this conduct is by no means meant to undermine the victimization of the membership by the cult. Rather, in my opinion, it helps to explain how decent people can end up playing into the brutality of cults.
The following excerpt from a letter written by a former member is one explanation for how these corrupt relationships worked in the WDU.
What horrifies me most when I look back on my time in the party was the form of human relationship that was promulgated among the membership. Even beyond the endless discipline and criticism, there was the near glee with which each one of us pounded upon the other. The thing I remember most was the realization, awful to admit, that some part of me rather enjoyed these [verbal] gang bangs upon the existence of another human being. After all, where else in all my life would I have this sort of power over another person? Where else would such mean-ness and pettiness not only be accepted but also encouraged? In what other sphere of life would I have the opportunity to be a)so right, b)so right and in a group, and c)have someone right there in front of me who was so unabashedly wrong
Whether or not one likes to think about it, these horrific public criticisms and denunciations, those enforced betrayals of private friendship and personal relationship could not have proceeded without the active participation of all the member-ship. And the WDU could not have been the sort of party it was without these ceaseless trials and criticism sessions and denunciations, for they were the process used to break people’s confidence in their own opinions.
I stress the words active participation. I daresay almost every single one of us led one of these sessions at some time or other. Even I, with my brief membership of one year, had occasion to lead such sessions. . . .Why would we do this? The love of petty power that exists in everyone, some vestigial doggy-master part of all of us? All that causal stuff is, as they say, beyond the scope of this paper. But until we examine how easily such a corrupt society could be created, how simple it was for a single woman, Doreen Baxter, and a few cohorts to take a hundred well-intentioned, intelligent individuals and then create such a nifty little human hell — until we look at how relatively easy it was, I don’t believe we will have gotten the point at all.
[We were not just political people that went wrong.] Yes, we brainwashed by Doreen Baxter and her lieutenants. But I think we have to take it a step further: after all, we were not locked in dark closets or tied up with guns to our heads. Without making light of the sort of behavior modification that took place in the party, let me add that we all cooperated. Every one of us was “leadership” over someone else. Even when we didn’t have to, we reported on people, we sat in groups and put up our hands to volunteer something terrible about someone, we tore someone to shreds if he was five cents short on getting lunch. At every and all occasions, we all did it. All of us.
There was a kind of exhilaration in wielding this sort of power. There had to be. People don’t do things they absolutely hate to do, so consistently, over years and years, without positive as well as negative reward. And beyond the (very occasional) real-world reward of seeing our labors amount to something, the reward was this: inside the party we were little potentates, comrade kings, lording it over one another.
Even with this view of active participation in mind, we cannot forget the unforgivable: Doreen Baxter, Sandra, and their most trusted lieutenants did indeed create “a nifty little human hell.” The “taste of power” of the many (and a mere nibble it was for most) was nowhere near the wielding of power, the perpetuation of corrupt behavior, and the perpetration of unspeakable brutality carried out by the few at the top. Although the cultist may in fact become a collaborator in his or her own manipulated conversion, the process of conversion is real and profound. The more successful the conversion process, the more powerful the group, for there are that many more members who grasp and accept a particular ideology — and a particular leader. During conversion, the cult member’s self is reconstitut-ed to fit the mold. In this case, the mold was the cadre ideal.
In reflecting on her years in the WDU, another former member described the process in a poem:
I guess the worst part about it
is what they did to my brain
They took my brain
and along with it my feelings
my passion and my love.
They took my brain and made me something
other than I wanted to be
I lost sight of the meaning
I sunk into the madness
I lost my self-control
I wanted to make a better world
I was willing to fight for that
willing to sacrifice
But they took my soul
turned it inside out
made me something
other than I wanted to be.
And I guess the worst part about it
is that I did the same to others
just like me.
The DDD Syndrome
The thoughtful, methodical, and thorough training process that took place in the WDU falls readily into what cult researchers have called the “modified DDD syndrome”: deception, dependency, and dread (Langone, 1991, pp. 264-265). A brief review of some of the incidents in my early history as a member provides examples of the seduc-tion/manipulation technique typically used by cults. This process is both subtle and blunt; the effects are both unconscious and painful.
In my case, the deception began when I thought I was joining a national women’s group, while, at the first meeting, I found myself in a mixed group. During a break, I made a comment to a friend that I was surprised and somewhat upset that this wasn’t what I’d been told. When the meeting reconvened, I was suddenly the target of a harsh criticism led by my initial recruiter (Sandra) for having a “backward and antirevolu-tionary attitude.” Everyone joined in and I was incredibly embarrassed. I was told to come back to the next meeting with a written self-criticism. The deception issue remained unacknowledged by everyone. I was both angry and taken aback, but I wrote the self-criticism and continued to go to meetings.
The following week my self-criticism was held up as an example of someone who really “took to heart” what was said. Once again, I was treated well. Meanwhile, the friend with whom I had been caught talking the week before had her self-criticism held up for ridicule. She received more criticism and was told to write it again. I was enormously relieved that mine “passed.” In reality I had no idea what I had written that had “worked,” I was just glad that it had. Having everyone in the room focusing all that anger at me was no fun.
Shortly thereafter I was asked to be a study group teacher. I was surprised given my recently exposed “backward” attitude. I was also delighted at being recognized; I looked forward to the assignment. After one or two study group sessions, I was met with by two people in leadership. I was told that I was doing an outstanding job, but there was one problem. They told me that I had to change my style of dress so as not to intimidate the “workers” in the study group. Apparently I looked too much like a “dyke.” Again I was angry about the imposition and also I thought they were being somewhat silly and overreacting. But they were firm in their position and once more I gave in to the pressure to conform. I enjoyed leading the study groups and decided that not wearing men’s T-shirts and blue workshirts was not the end of the world. I told myself and also the others that there was just something about all this that I wasn’t getting. The others assured me that I would. “Trust us,” they said. “We know what we’re doing. We know what works.”
A little while later I was asked to give up some extracurricular sports activities. Then I was asked to give up my job and work full-time for the organization so that I could be the secretary to the Central Committee. They explained to me that since the CC met at a variety of times it wouldn’t work for me to be at an outside job and therefore unavailable. My assignment as secretary was to take minutes of the meetings, then type up the minutes and have them delivered before six the next morning to the home of each of the seven CC members. Some-times they met every day for six or eight hours. Very fast I got very busy. Within about six months after joining, my free time was gone and my income was dependent on the organization.
When I gave up my job and my income dropped, it was suggested that I move into a house with other comrades to share expenses. Until then I was living alone — and sometimes I still dared to unplug my phone so the party couldn’t reach me. Once in a house with other members, my life-style became the party’s completely. Neither did I have any time for friends outside the party. In the eyes of my nonparty acquaintances, I dropped out of sight.
From the start I worked with top leadership. At one point I was assigned to help Doreen Baxter move to another house. I had only met her a few times previously. The first time was within a few weeks after joining. I was invited to a “special” Sunday morning study class, where about 25 or 30 of us gathered to hear her presentation on world history. I was told that only select members were invited to this lecture. I sat quietly and glanced at the 25 or so other people in the room. (Later I learned that, except for one or two members who weren’t there, this group represented the entire member-ship at that time; it was not a carefully picked selection of members honored to be in Baxter’s presence on a Sunday morning, as I had been told.) When the lecture ended, Sandra made a great fanfare about taking me up to the podium to introduce me to Baxter. “So, this is the great Emma,” Baxter said. (Emma was my party name.) Deep inside, I felt a recognizable burst of pride that others had been talking to her about me. I didn’t really know much about who she was or her past credentials, but I knew she was the leader of the organization I had just joined.
The day I was helping her move she seemed relaxed and friendly; she started talking about her past and showing me photo albums and news clippings in which she was mentioned. Out of natural curiosity and a desire to be polite and make conversation, I asked a few questions, such as what year something took place or where a certain snapshot was taken. The next day I was called into a meeting before four high-level members. In a dark room with the curtains drawn, I was informed that on Baxter’s orders I was under security investigation. I was suspected of being an agent, they said. I was grilled and regrilled about my back-ground, my personal life, how I earned my money, my friends, and about the questions I asked the day before. I was told that others in the party, including my friends, were also being questioned about me. (They were.) I was completely shocked, and I was terrified by this experience. I was sure they were going to throw me out of the group.
Not long after that incident I was given the CC secretary job and also assigned to work with Baxter on organizing her writing. This meant more access to “party secrets” and more exposure to Baxter. I found this rather confusing, but I took it as a sign that I was now trusted. However, for the remainder of my party years, the accusation of being an agent was repeatedly thrown in my face; and those episodes were some of my worst party experiences.
After this came the lesbian purge during which I lost friends and a lover. I was put on trial, suspended for four weeks, and demoted. My new assignment was to be the party’s typesetter working 12-hour shifts. I remember that entire experience — the investigations, the interrogations, the purge, the trial — as completely devastating. During and afterwards, I felt such repulsion at the things that had been said to me at my trial by my comrades that I no longer wanted to be “that person” who had committed such sins against the party. One symbol of my rejection was that I took off the jacket I had on at the trial and never wore it again. I could barely touch it. Months later I found it in the back of some closet and threw it in the garbage.
The incidents just described are meant to help clarify the process by which a person changes: deception, dependency, dread. This process is different for each member, but thought-reforming episodes are chance happenings just because someone happened to like basketball or happened to want a baby. In the WDU, these events were called “cadre tests”; they were meant to induce a “cadre crisis.” They were, each one of them, planned and forced to happen. This change process was targeted for each member (sometimes even for a recruit); in the case of a purge or a campaign, it happened on a partywide scale. These “tests” chipped away at the person, at one’s thoughts, beliefs, self-image, and core being — until the party woman or man emerged.
Thus, the WDU managed to gain total control over its members not because each person had a desire for power or even a desire to be mistreated or punished. Rather, this control came about through a concerted effort and skillful manipulation, with every step calculated to achieve “transformation” of the member. Over time strong-willed individuals and independent thinkers became “willing” participants in a vicious and harmful closed society — all in the name of “serving the working class.”
How then did such a powerful and controlling group fall apart?
III. Some Theories on the Demise
In the WDU, there was always a correct answer for everything. It was a black and white world, even though at times black was white. Neverthe-less, the party had the answer and the party was always right. In reality, things are much more complex; thus, presented here are some of the factors that I suggest contributed to the demise of Doreen Baxter’s “human experiment.”
These factors center on the group’s ideology, the practical work in relation to the ideology, the leader, the relationship between the leader and her second-in-command Sandra, and the long-term effects of living under cultic pressure.
Departure From the Working-Class Foundations
The WDU’s founding ideology, as explained to recruits and members, was to build a revolutionary feminist organization that would fight for real change in the daily lives of the U.S. working class, eventually leading to the advent of socialism. In the early years, there was a great deal of emphasis on labor committees, workplace organizing, community efforts, and so forth. At one point in the late 1970s, the WDU led a grass-roots organization of nearly one thousand members who worked on local political issues; many of the members lived in the city’s communities of color.
Over time, because of Baxter’s obsession with academia and intellectuals, the focus changed from local work to international causes, from a biweekly newspaper distributed locally by the members to academic books and theoretical journals put out by the party’s publishing arm and distributed through trade and academic channels. Although militants still did some local organizing (usually in the form of support work for revolutionary struggles in Central America), most members were more and more distanced from what the party was espousing and what Baxter was aspiring to. Baxter was professing new theories on east and west socialisms; she was taking a greater and greater interest in Eastern Europe; her goal was to get invited to the Soviet Union. Much of this was rather alienating for the average militant. It was hard to make the leap from talking to people on the street about local ballot propositions to getting excited about what was going on in Bulgaria. No one spoke it, but many a militant wondered what any of this had to do with the U.S. working class.
A Climate of Terror and Alienation
About the same time (1983-1984), Baxter decided it was time to expand the party nationally. Grouplets of militants (anywhere from three to seven cadres) were sent out to set up “stations” in five cities in the south, midwest, and the east. This presented a new challenge for Baxter and Sandra, who discovered the need for a way to give orders to and control party members living thousands of miles away. The answer was computers. Suddenly everyone had to learn how to use computers; all reports and communications were to be done by computer. The party purchased over 50 computers and modems and set up its own Bulletin Board. Militants and party facilities were given code names: Baxter was “Mean Dog Alpha”; others had names like “Mad Max” and “Bulldog.” Everything was becoming more and more alienating — first, the ideology; then the practical work; and now, the way in which orders and reports were communicated.
Occasionally, there would be outbursts of rage from Baxter sensing that she was losing control. Sandra was sent around to the stations to expel the “rotten apples”: those who were making trouble, in the way, putting up barriers to the hard work necessary to build party units away from the Center. A similar purge was going on at the party’s headquarters. A climate of irrationality and despair prevailed. Many of the original founders were gone or demoted, having been kicked out or reduced to low-level functionaries with shattered self-images. Longtime members were getting expelled left and right, or disappearing into the night. Sandra’s right-hand assistant was expelled for staying home to study on her assigned “study night.” Leading cadres were put on trial over and over again, subjected to merciless denunciations; some were demoted, some were expelled. There was an atmosphere of terror and instability, even more so than members had become accustomed to.
The effects of years of endless work and punitive criticism were taking their toll. The majority of the membership at this point were those people who joined in the early years. They were supposed to be the hearty, the loyal, the tireless; they were, however, losing what little grasp on reality they had left. They were too tired or too confused to read (much less understand) even the daily newspaper; they had little or no contact with the outside world. “Productive work” consisted of hours of criticism sessions and primarily menial work necessary to get Baxter ready for her next international trip, or just plain cleaning up after her. Sometimes upper-level leadership had to spend hours trying to decipher one of Baxter’s alcoholic computer messages so they could give direction to the militants below them. In an earlier paper, I described the period toward the end like this:
As time went on, the dream also shattered. The political work we were doing made less and less sense. We were actively sectarian and disruptive within the Left. We were routinely criticized by other political groups for being divisive, cult-like, devious, and untrustworthy. Generally others said that we existed as an organization only to serve our leader and build her career. Internally, the negativity toward us was dealt with by denouncing everyone else on the Left as anticommunist, by putting out great defenses of our leader, great pumped-up presentations on our accomplishments, inflated with lies, deceptions, and cover-ups.
In reality, more and more of the work focused on enhancing Baxter’s political and intellectual reputation, when in fact she was no longer doing any of the theoretical work. She was usually too drunk, depressed, hung-over, or on a rampage about something against someone. During her “political trips” to socialist countries, she was often dysfunctional and incapacitat-ed, either by alcohol or paranoia.
Did anyone really in what was left in their heart of hearts think we were actually building a world full of human liberation? I doubt it. We were, in fact, mentally drained, mentally abused, physically exhausted, and slowly dying — and hating every minute of it. We lived in a cold and cruel world; we were trapped in a cycle of blatant abuse and silent pleas for survival.
Dissension at the Top/Rumblings at the Base
Not only was Baxter more and more distanced from the majority of the membership, but also she was exhibiting more paranoia, cynicism, and hostility. In discussions with the inner circle, she began to talk about splitting from the bulk of the party. She said she was tired of the burden, of dragging all these militants around, of having to explain everything all the time and put up with the militants’ stupid mistakes. She wanted out. Her idea was to take a handful of cadres: those she called the “intellectuals” and those with money. The plan was to go to Washington, D.C., and start a think tank, to be around the nation’s policymakers. She began to have one-on-one meetings with certain cadres, putting out her idea and getting their commitment to follow her. “The rest be damned,” she would say. “They can fend for themselves.”
A backdrop to all of this was that Baxter turned on Sandra. Sandra was suddenly persona non grata. She was banished to her house; she was to have no visitors unless approved by Baxter; her party mail was re-routed to Staff and she was sent only approved memos. Baxter called her daily and screamed and screamed at her over the phone, blaming her for messing up everything. Baxter was not including Sandra in her plan to leave.
In return, Sandra turned on Baxter. And this created an opening for the pent-up militants to burst through, like roaring water breaking through a dam. Sandra was having secret conversations with her favored few. She was giving certain militants literature on adult children of alcoholics. She was outwardly saying that the problem with the party was Doreen Baxter. She was talking privately about planning a sort of coup, suggesting to her cronies that in their meetings they begin to raise criticisms of Baxter.
The channel for this was to be the current party campaign, ironically called “Quality of Life” discussions. Baxter made it known that she wanted her life to change and she wanted this talked about in the Branches. Upper-level leadership were to lead discussions on this topic, treading very carefully, of course, so as not to let it go too far. Whether Baxter genuinely made a mistake in allowing this to take place or whether her intention (as suspected by some) was to use this as a springboard for Sandra’s eventual expulsion will probably never be known. What did happen was the first real crack in the structure, allowing people for the first time in years to talk about their feelings.
In a sense, the Quality of Life meetings turned into group therapy sessions. Still bound by party discipline and riddled with guilt and self-critical attitudes, militants tiptoed into the unknown. People spoke with anguish about losing friends and family. One woman started to describe how she felt when her husband was put under house arrest and eventually expelled; at the time she had been told not to think or ever talk about it. She never saw him again and for years her distress at this event had remained bundled up inside of her. Parents shed tears over never having the time to see their children. Some said they knew they weren’t supposed to but they felt incredibly lonely; others said they felt lost and hopeless about our accomplishments in the movement. A well-respected party doctor and party theoretician in his 50s said he was so tired he prayed daily for a heart attack to give him some release. Others said they wished they would get killed in a car accident because they couldn’t think of any other way of getting out. Another said that every morning for the past six months she cried and cried in the shower, then pulled herself together, and went off to her facility.
One leading cadre, when asked by Baxter about his group’s discussion, reported that some of the militants were saying that they had no self-esteem. “Fuck that!” she snorted. “They came in with no self-esteem.” Thus, the cadres who were leading these meetings were in turmoil. How could they report back to Baxter what was being said? How could they stop this flow of emotion? Wasn’t this becoming terribly antiparty? Wouldn’t Baxter simply go through the roof if she knew what was going on in these meetings? And, for some, how to deal with Sandra’s whisperings to go back to the meetings and start talking openly with the militants about Baxter?
In the middle of this tension and breaking of ranks, Baxter left for another of her trips to Eastern Europe. Without Baxter’s threatening presence and without Sandra playing her crucial role of whipping everyone back into line, and with sufficient cracks in the structure, the Workers Democratic Union blew wide open. As I wrote in my journal at the time, “The hopes for the future were many eleven years ago — and the wounds are deep and plentiful eleven years later.”
Gitlin, T. (1987). The sixties: Years of hope, days of rage. New York: Bantam.
Hinton, W. (1966). Fanshen: A documentary of revolution in a Chinese village. New York: Vintage.
Howard, D. (1989). Defining the political. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kundera, M. (1987). The joke. New York: Penguin.
Langone, M. (1991). “Assessment and treatment of cult victims and their families.” In P.A. Keller & S.R. Hegman (Eds.), Innovations in clinical practice: A sourcebook (vol. 10), pp. 261-274. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource & Exchange, Inc.
Lifton, R.J. (1963). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: Norton.
Lifton, R.J. (1987). “Cults: Religious totalism and civil liberties.” In R.J. Lifton (Ed.), The future of immortality and other essays for a nuclear age. New York: Basic Books.
Lisman, M., & Tanenhaus, S. (1988). Cults as restrictive groups: Assessing individuals during recruitment, indoctrination and depar-ture. Unpub-lished master’s thesis, California State University, Sacramento.
Meyer, F.S. (1961). The moulding of communists: The training of the communist cadre. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Ofshe, R., & Singer, M.T. (1986). “Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3,1, 3-24.
Rickett, A. & A. (1973). Prisoners of liberation. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
West, L.J., & Singer, M.T. (1980). “Cults, quacks, and nonprofessional psychotherapies.” In H. Kaplan, A. Freedman, & B.J. Sadock (Eds.), Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry/III, vol. 3, 3rd. ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
Wheaton, E. (1987). Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro killings. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Taking on the work of writing this paper has been an intensely personal and intellectually challenging experience — a process of recovery, research, and rediscovery. It was heart-wrenching, yet also very rewarding. I especially wish to thank my former therapist, Shelly Rosen, for helping bring me back to Earth during my immediate post-cult years (without her I might not be here today), and Michael Langone, Director of the American Family Foundation, for insistently encouraging me to write about my experience.
My deepest gratitude and thanks go to all those who read and commented on draft versions — primarily Philip Cushman, Peg Jacob, Michael Langone, David Lindsay, Nancy Slavin, Mary Staton, Charles Strozier, Elizabeth Swenson, and Sara Tanenhaus — and especially to Kim Vickers, my life partner, for her loving support. Last but not least, I wish to acknowledge the years of dedication, hardship, and suffering of all my former “comrades.”
Janja Lalich received her B.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1967. Her personal experience in a political cult and her independent cult research has led to a concern about the broader social and political implications of deceptive groups, which she hopes to write more about. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a freelance editor and publishing consultant.