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Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

January 29, 2010

Robert Jay Lifton. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. W.W. Norton and Company, 1961.

Chris Hess (2000)

Lifton’s study is an in-depth look at how thought reform operates on human beings. As a psychiatrist, he became interested in how the CCP carried out thought reform while participating in psychiatric evaluations of American prisoners of war following their release at the end of the Korean War (p.6). His research was conducted in Hong Kong in 1954 and 1955, where he was able to interview twenty-five Westerners as they were released from Chinese prisons, and fifteen Chinese refugee intellectuals. With such a diverse subject group he looks for similarities in the process of thought reform among them. He points out previous misconceptions regarding thought reform or “brainwashing,” and argues that the real power of thought reform comes from the combination of external coercion and an “inner enthusiasm through evangelistic exhortation” (p.13). This is the key to his concept of “ideological totalism.” By this ungainly phrase I mean to suggest the coming together of immoderate ideology with equally immoderate individual character traits – an extremist meeting ground between people and ideas (p.419). The immoderate ideology in this case being the totality of Chinese communist ideology.

With the Western subjects, he finds that in the individual backgrounds of these people there existed, particularly in the “converts” (those who had seemingly been converted to communism) elements of “all or nothing emotional alignments” that he calls individual totalism (p.129). He sees this as a part of every human, but in varying degrees based on biographical factors such as parental domination, guilt, or identity problems (p.436). The basic idea here being that an individual with such a background is more likely to become susceptible to ideological totalism. As his Chinese subjects are all “failures” of the thought reform programs being carried out on the mainland, Lifton delves into the factors that enabled them to resist. In doing so he argues that a set of psychological struggles and tensions over such things as rebelliousness, self expression, family loyalty and Westernization existed in Chinese intellectuals as they searched for new identities in a changing cultural and historical environment (p.360). For some such tensions led to a rejection of Communism, but he theorizes that more often they drew young intellectuals to Communism as a way to form a new identity free of such tension (p.378). Lifton argues this process of identity formation is the purpose of early Chinese Communist thought reform (p.378-380).

This was one of three books published in 1961 dealing with Chinese Communist thought reform. Lucien Pye glowingly reviews the book saying it is an example of the successful linkage of local Chinese experiences with knowledge concerning universal human behavior (Journal of Asian Studies, 20.4: 522-523). Here we are given an explanation of how Chinese intellectuals embrace or reject Communist ideology. We hear their struggles through their own voices. Moreover the psychological explanation presented by Lifton attempts to answer not just the how, but the why and this is quite powerful. As he argues, the tensions of modernity, rebellion and identity formation left these intellectuals susceptible to the ideological totalism of Chinese Communism.

This is a well-constructed argument, and in the cases presented to us, many of Lifton’s claims seem correct. He clearly shows that some of his subjects actively pursued a future within the new government, and were not immediately “duped” into anything (chapters. 15, 17). It is the insight into a key facet of Chinese communist thought that is the major contribution of this work. In constructing his argument, Lifton illuminates the importance of consciousness in Chinese Communism. The belief that anyone, regardless of class background, can develop the “correct” consciousness lies at the heart of the thought reform process Lifton describes. The fact that several of his subjects were from landlord backgrounds reflects this. They were actively participating in the process of consciousness building that would enable them to escape their families class designation. His description of this process among the Westerners further exemplifies how central this belief became. The consciousness of these foreign men and women too, could be molded by thought reform.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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