Like the whiff of a mouldy madeleine, the statement by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) on the expulsion of Comrade Balakrishnan takes you back to a time that is well worth forgetting.

‘Balakrishnan and his clique were suspended from the Party because of their pursuance of conspiratorial and splittist activities and because of their spreading social fascist slanders against the Party and the proletarian movement,’ it read.

The churn of Dalek denunciations can only have come from one time and place – the Marxisant left of the 1970s.

I’ll try to translate. The central committee used ‘clique’ and ‘splittist’ to accuse Balakrishnan and his friends of seeking to divert the faithful from ‘the task of organising the industrial proletariat [that] will surge ahead, under the leadership of the Party’, as the communique went on to say. No crime was worse, because the party was the best and only hope for the working class, and by extension, all humanity. The reference to ‘social fascism’ would have confused listeners in 1974, and must be incomprehensible now. A ‘social fascist’ is not a Nazi with a full diary. The label comes from Stalin’s accession to power in the late 1920s, when the dictator decided to ignore the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, and concentrate communist energies on fighting social democratic parties. They were worse than Nazis, Moscow insisted, because they misled the workers into believing that they were an alternative to the one true communist path.

Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’ is too weak a phrase to capture the intensity of the hatred the committed feel for heretics, who share elements of their ideology. Heretics know the truth, or at least part of it. Yet they refuse to accept it and instead lead recruits, who might have seen the light, to perdition. Just as for the religious fundamentalist, the apostate is worse than the heathen, who is too ignorant to know better, so for the communist in this instance the social democrat is worse than the fascist.

As Scotland Yard briefed today, Balakrishnan went on from the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) to run the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton. He is now under investigation for allegedly holding three women as slaves for 30 years.

The alleged slave case, as I ought to say, has puzzled observers. People at first assumed that the rescued women had been held hostage by foreigners – probably Saudi Arabians – who had enslaved maids from the Philippines. When rumours of a cult spread, people assumed that ‘cult’ must mean ‘religious cult’ – for what other type of cult is there?

When I was writing What’s Left, my history of how far left ideas became mainstream, I was indebted to a study by Dennis Tourish and Tim Wholforth. Their On the Edge is a wonderfully illuminating book because it shows how the techniques used by political and religious cultists are identical, and says there is no need to separate the two. Because Marx was a great philosopher – whom I still read incidentally – apologists like to say that you cannot blame him for the crimes of Marxists. But Marx offered heaven on earth, and Lenin showed that a small group of fanatical murderers could seize power. The combination of the promise of Utopia and the promise that Utopia could be gained if, and only if, revolutionaries followed the one true dogma has meant that Marxism has produced more cults and millenarian egomaniacs than any other secular doctrine.

Religious and secular utopians agree that:

Reality is a lie

The leaders of any cult, political or religious, must ensure that their members treat news from the outside world as contaminated. They cannot allow sceptics to warn the faithful that they are wasting their lives on a fantasy. In religious cults, ignorance of the true religion damns sceptical voices. Those who question the authority of the faith are often worse than merely ignorant.They may be the agents of the devil deliberately trying to destroy the seekers of righteousness. Political cults achieve the same result by saying that the real world with its inconvenient facts is an illusion created by the cult’s enemies – the press, the secret services and so on. They spread lies. They stop the masses understanding that the cult is their saviour, and use any dastardly tactic to stop the party achieving its historic mission.

Break up families

Parents, husbands, wives, lovers and children are the people most likely to tell you that the leaders you are following are demented. At the time I was writing What’s Left, right-wing militia groups in the United States were encouraging their members to abandon their homes for retreats in the wilderness. The far-left cults had the same determination to hide their members from the malign influences of family life. The worst was the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, a Marxist party whose ranks were filled with an extraordinary number of actors. (Unlikely proletarians, but there you are.) Beyond agitation, the party’s main purpose was to provide women for the great leader, one Gerry Healy, to rape. Corin Redgrave and his sister Vanessa stayed with Healy to the end. To maintain his control, Healy had to isolate sect members, and make sure that he controlled the information they received.

Corin Redgrave’s first wife, Deirdre, described how Healy reacted when she refused to join his party, and bolster rather than challenge her husband’s commitment to the revolution:

I was suddenly commanded into Healy’s presence. Two rather grim looking henchmen took me by the arms, albeit gently. He looked at me with a steady, even gaze and demanded,
‘Why don’t you join the party? Why won’t you support your husband?’
I told Healy quite clearly that I had two young children to bring up – and I didn’t want them to grow up disturbed. I wanted them to be normal kids. If you are a member of the WRP – a real dedicated member, that is – you would seldom see your children. You are travelling everywhere. Bradford one day. Cardiff the next.

The marriage broke down soon afterwards. I was not surprised to hear that the Stockwell cult allegedly targeted overseas students, who were struggling to make a new life in Britain. With no family, lovers or friends to tell them they are making a mistake, the isolated are a cult’s ideal recruits

Work your cultists half to death

Jehovah’s Witnesses keep banging at your door and the few remaining members of the Socialist Workers Party are still up early trying to sell newspapers because they want money. They are their leaders’ cash machines, and the harder they work the more they make for the cult. It is also true, however, that the harder they work the harder they find it to break away. They have committed all that time, all that hope and enthusiasm, how can they admit it has all been for nothing?

BEFORE WE BECOME too superior, and too eager to enjoy the show, consider how much cultish behaviour there is in mainstream society. Admittedly, it is on a far less intense scale. But I have known people who have had their colleagues berate them for marrying someone from the enemy’s political camp. They feared that if the man or woman closest to the person ‘marrying out’ did not confirm his or her prejudices, then their adherence to the party line would weaken.

That said, I have only seen the political policing of relationships a few times. More common is for managers to behave like cult leaders. They order their subordinates to work all hours. They treat family as a dangerous distraction from the greater corporate good, and evidence of a life away from work as evidence of disloyalty. As with cults, the harder the subordinate works, the more money the firm makes, and the more committed to the firm’s success the employee becomes.

In one instance, I think it is fair to say, cultish thinking is everywhere. You cannot read the political press without finding the ineradicable belief that a malign conspiracy perverts the minds of the masses. For the Left, the wiles and propaganda of the tabloids and Murdoch press stop the workers understanding their true interests. For the Right, it is the BBC, which writers for the Tory press, including Spectator writers and readers, credit with a supernatural power to brainwash the voters and prevent them seeing the blessed truth that an over-policed, under-funded, negligently regulated, closed-bordered micro state is in theirs and Britain’s best interests.

That must be true, must it not? For what would be left of your faith if it were just a comforting illusion?