The political movements that sprang up in the 1960s, around the new agendas of women's rights, community activity, housing and third world liberation, were easy prey for all kinds of entryists. The very nature of their loose-knit structure laid them open to exploitation by those with a much harder and more specific agenda. Alexandra Stein was active, in the 1970s, in a variety of radical groups on the west coast of the United States. She had fled there follow-ing a dysfunctional but highly political adolescence in north London. Dissatisfied with the shapelessness of so much political activity, she sought out a more disciplined environment for her activism. She soon discovered the "O" (short for "organisation").
From the beginning, there are clues that all is not well within the O, such as stories about boxing matches between members being set up to "heighten struggle", and a paranoid security system that results in all meetings being held with the radio on so as to block out the possibility of eavesdropping. Stein finds that the O controls every aspect of its members' lives. On their entry into the organisation, they are assessed for the nature of their "ideological form" on the basis "that any relationship between people in capitalism can be looked at strictly as class relationships between implying domination [sic] and subordination". Stein, a committed and active feminist, is rather incredulous to discover that she has the ideological form of a "male chauvinist".
The members work long, punishing hours: in addition to their normal day jobs, they are expected to work in any one of the O's own businesses, such as the wholemeal bakery. There is seldom time for more than four or five hours' sleep, which means that members, who in any case are isolated from each other for security reasons, have scant energy to think about what is happening to them.
When Stein complains of stress, she is told that she is not up to the challenge of dedicating her life to struggle. The key point here is that Stein, and the other members, are unaware that they have entered a cult, because it was disguised as a Marxist-Leninist political organisation dedicated to creating cadres ready to fight for the cause. The penny drops only when she tries to leave the organisation and is able to predict how her questioning of the O and, in particular, its stream of failed business initiatives, will be met by criticism of her.
It takes courage for her to begin to challenge the organisation, not least because her husband, a fellow O member, is unable to understand the enormity of the con perpetrated on all of them. It is only in retrospect that Stein realises that the O has every facet of a cult, as much as the Branch Davidians or the Moonies. All the elements are there: the control, the emphasis on shared ideology, the suspicion of outsiders, the need for purity and so on. The last section of the book reads like a detective story as she uncovers the true nature of the man running the O.
The importance of this well-written book is not only in its insight into the workings of a cult, but of how damaging such organisations have been to the wider left. One of the causes of the demise of the 1960s movements was the way that cultish groups infiltrated them, and one has only to look at the ever-present Socialist Workers banners at demonstrations today to understand that entryism remains a destructive force. It is not too difficult, for example, to characterise most of the extreme left-wing organisations that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as the Workers' Revolutionary Party and Militant, as cults of differing varieties of extremity.
It is often said that cults have only two real purposes: recruiting other members and raising money. One could add a third, which is sexual opportunities for its leaders, a constant theme to which the O is no exception. Nor is it too far-fetched to argue that some of the current trends in corporate capitalism - the obsession with leadership, the incomprehensible management-speak, the emphasis on corporate culture and the need for long hours - have resonances with Stein's story.