'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there' (or the strange case of ‘Comrade’ Bala)

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The opening line from L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between seems strangely appropriate when reflecting on the recent accusations of slavery made against Aravindan Balakrishnan (aka Comrade’ Bala) and his wife, and 'comrade', Chanda. Since the news broke of three women, a 57-year-old Irish woman, a 69-year-old Malaysian and a 30-year-old British women, being rescued, following a series of clandestine phone calls to the Freedom Charity from a flat in Brixton, one of the places they had been held captive for 30 years, there has been a catalogue of increasingly bizarre headlines and revelations that, rather than clarifying the events surrounding the case, serve to further confuse and obstruct our ability to understand the strange case of ‘comrade’ Bala.

What initially appeared to be a depressing, but not wholly unfamiliar, tale of domestic servitude became something akin to a soap opera with each day bringing the latest twist in the form of another lurid headline. First we learnt that the women had met through a “shared political ideology” and had lived collectively. Rumours of the involvement of a 'cult' were rife. Once the accused had been named we were introduced to the Maoist, Workers Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought who, were are told, were the inspiration for the Tooting Popular Front in John Sullivan's 1970s TV sitcom, Citizen Smith.

Led by Bala and with a membership of around 20 members that included two of the alleged slaves, they operated a bookshop, or collective/squat depending on who you read, the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton in the mid-1970s. It was closed following a police raid in 1978 and, although it did continue to be active in to the mid 1980s publishing, for example, notices in the CPGB's Morning Star, the Institute appeared to have 'gone underground'. It now seems that Bala and a handful of supporters maintained their commitment to collective living and spent the last 30 years moving around South London occupying as many as 13 - again, the number varies depending on who you read - different addresses.

Once these 'facts' had been established the floodgates opened, stories concerning secret love letters to neighbours, long lost sisters, foreign gurus who proclaim themselves Christ, brainwashed ex Cheltenham Ladies College 'high-flyers', estranged daughters of code breaking war heroes, lost inheritances, the mysterious parentage and lack of education of, and documentation for, the 30-year-old British women and disturbingly a suspicious death following a fall from a window of a property occupied by the group, all appeared within a matter of days alongside a copious amount of 'comment' from both the left and right. But with Bala and his wife now on bail until January 2014 and more up to date and equally salacious stories to replace it, this case, which the Metropolitan Police described as “a complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years, brainwashing would be the simplest term” (Guardian 23/11/13), already appears to be fading from view before we can even begin to make sense of it.

So, rather than getting caught up in all the speculation around these three women, what we can we say now about the questions raised by this case?

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s tens of thousands of young people influenced by the wave of strikes, anti-war actions and student occupations that occurred internationally during this period began to look for alternatives to the future offered by capitalism. This led to a significant growth in the number of organisations who identified themselves as ‘Marxist’ and ‘revolutionary’. The Workers Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought were just one example of this general tendency.

Just how 'revolutionary' these groups were can be seen from looking at their own propaganda. The Workers Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, like the Communist Party of England (ML) who had expelled Bala in 1974 for the “pursuance of conspiratorial and splittist activities and because of their spreading social fascist slanders against the Party and the proletarian movement”[1] and all other 'good' ‘anti-revisionists’ at the time, claimed affiliation to the Communist Party of China and slavishly supported the Chinese state (in the majority of cases their loyalty was later transferred to Hoxha's Albania). For all their reckless, confrontational behaviour towards the state and their radical language of “building a red base in Brixton to encourage the People's Liberation Army to liberate the area”, of being 'devoted soldiers of Chairman Mao' and calls of 'death to the fascist British state', the Institute's framework, the belief of the possibility of socialism in one country, was a nationalistic, state capitalist one. To use an uncomplicated word it was 'reactionary'. They may have exchanged Moscow for Beijing but there were still hand in hand with Stalinism, as Tariq Ali, apparently without irony, wrote in the Guardian (27/11/13), “[reproducing] the model of a one-party state within their own ranks”. 'Power to the people' may have been the slogan but it was the party, not the working class, led by its well-trained cadre, that would take power 'come the day'. With this mind set the step, morally and ethically, from being a sect worshipping the 'great helmsman' to a tight-knit commune following a 'Christ like' guru doesn't seem that big.

For all those other left-wingers who ridiculed the Institute, smirking at their leaflets over a pint, the idiom 'people in glass houses... ' springs to mind. The Institute may have been an extreme example, even for a milieu not known for its restraint or modesty[2], but there were instances of equally questionable behaviour and morality amongst, for example, the Trotskyist left, who largely shared the Stalinist's illusions that the 'deformed workers' states' or 'bureaucratic centralism' found in the so-called socialist countries was somehow 'progressive'. Gerry Healy's sexual abuse of young women in the Workers' Revolutionary Party during the same period is an object lesson in the sort of behaviour you could expect from the leader of an organisation that was ultimately loyal to capitalism and its state. This behaviour was not restricted to the 'unenlightened' 1970s, as the recent revelations of the conduct of a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party also demonstrates.

Of course, all of this supports the bourgeoisie’s contention that, (to paraphrase a poster that was popular in the 1970s): ‘you don’t have to be mad to be a Marxist, but it helps’. The ruling classes of all nations have campaigned against the workers' movement from its inception. Whether it be Churchill's concerns over the Bolshevik ‘conspiracy’ in the 1920s, McCarthyism in the 1950s or the triumphalism over the ‘death of communism’ in the 1990s their attempts to rid the world of the 'red menace' have continued unabated. The ideological weight of the collapse of the eastern bloc has begun to slowly shift over the last ten years so the appearance of 'Maoist slaves' and 'manipulative gurus' will only be welcomed. What better way to discredit an idea, a movement than question its sanity. The members of the Institute were/are clearly 'mad', 'weird' or 'brainwashed' when compared with the rest of society who live 'normally', weren't they?

Well, if we ignore, as the bourgeois press does, the fact that we live in a society where all relationships are subject to a range of stresses, pressures and inhuman ideologies, that would suggest that the tens of thousands of young people who joined organisations like the Institute throughout the 1960s and 1970s were equally as mad, wouldn't it? And that the tens of thousands of people who are participating in the emerging social movements from Brazil to Turkey today are also 'mad', after all that isn't 'normal' behaviour either, is it? All of this is, of course, nonsense. The cynicism of the arguments used by the bourgeoisie against those who, however confused, question its rule tells us more about the period we're living in than it does about the individuals involved. As Brendan O'Neill wrote in the Daily Telegraph (27/11/13), rather than asking “how could a seemingly odd, one-off couple manage to mistreat three women like this? They're saying: this is where ideological commitment gets you”. He continues, and this is worth quoting in full, “at a time when everyone is encouraged to obsess over their personal identity, to nurture their self-esteem, to devote more energy to narcissistic pursuit of therapeutic self-improvement than to any big political project, the whole of the seventies and eighties look increasingly odd to us. We can't believe people lived and breathed politics. We can't believe people sacrificed some of life's pleasures in the pursuit of political ideals. We can't believe those things happened because they seem so alien in this era of navel-gazing selfie-taking, in which writing a Tweet is considered political activity and all big systems of meaning – whether left-wing, right-wing or religious – are seen as foolish, dangerous and corrupting”.

It is not commitment to a political, or any other, ideal that is at fault here. It's rare that we find ourselves agreeing with Tariq Ali but he is correct when he writes, “young women and men who joined far-left groups did so for the best of reasons. They [just like young women and men today] wanted to change the world” (Guardian 27/11/13). Just to be clear, this doesn't mean that we think 'anything goes', any response to capitalism is positive. We just don't think, for the simple fact that the society we live in is 'complicated', that those we disagree with politically necessarily, automatically, set out consciously to be 'tyrants'. To echo Brendan O'Neill, it is the, alleged, manipulation and abuse of three women by someone at least two of whom thought of as their comrade, as an ally in their fight to 'change the world', it is this betrayal of trust and respect that appears to be at the heart of this sad case. Unfortunately, the capitalist press, and its bourgeois sponsors, can't or doesn't want to, make this important distinction. There can be no discussion, no ambiguity, for them Marxism will always be mad or bad or, as in the case of Bala, a bit of both.

There is one final thing we can say about the strange case of ‘comrade’ Bala and that concerns the role of the police and, for want of a better term, 'the care industry'. Any regular reader of the British press will be familiar with the 'moral hysteria' that has permeated political discourse over recent years. This has intensified following the revelations concerning Jimmy Savile. The response to these three women's request for help is yet another example of the disregard shown to any attempt to uncover, in a sensitive or thoughtful way, the facts, the 'truth' of the case in question. As soon as the story broke the 'great and the good' were queuing up to have their say, this was 'Britain's worst ever slavery case', these three women were 'the tip of the iceberg' with thousands being held against their will in Britain, 'modern slavery is all around us'. But this household was well-known to the state with Bala, Chanda and two of the alleged ‘slaves’ all having been arrested numerous times in the 1970s and the remaining members of the ‘commune’ were rehoused by Lambeth Council five years ago. The police took a month after the initial tip off to raid the property and the accused are on bail. Despite attempts to compare this case with other recent slavery cases the available 'facts' don't appear to support the claims of campaigners, and comments made by police support this, “we do not believe that this case falls into the category of sexual exploitation, or what we all understand as human trafficking” (Guardian 23/11/13). The video that has emerged of two of the women along with their alleged captors attending the inquest in 1997 of their housemate who died after falling from a window also raises questions about just how these women were enslaved. At the risk of speculating, the footage suggests a 'Stockholm Syndrome' scenario that has gone stale over time, with Bala's promise of revolution having vanished long ago; all they're left with is 'revolutionary discipline'.

As we have already said, the ‘truth’ of what happened in this Brixton flat will not be revealed for some time, if indeed it is ever truly revealed. We don't deny that forms of slavery undoubtedly exist in Britain today but this story isn't about understanding why, which would surely pose the question why and how vulnerable people from poorer countries end up in Britain. While the bourgeois press, charities and government agencies are pursuing their own agendas these women’s lives appear only as symbols or statistics of society’s ills. They are living 'evidence' of the ‘care industry’s’, unsubstantiated, claims of widespread abuse and slavery. We can only end by saying that, whatever the outcome of this case, we wish these women well as they try and make sense of their lives. It’s probably too late for Balakrishnan to appreciate what he’s done, to practise some old fashioned ‘self-criticism’. In buying wholesale into the myths of Maoism he acquired a set of ideas that could justify everything from imperialist wars to domestic servitude.

Kino 2/12/13



[1] Statement of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) – August 1st, 1974 (http://www.marxists.org/history/erol/uk.hightide/cpestatements.htm).

[2] For example, musician Cornelius Cardew, a founding member of the RCPB (ML), the successors of the CPE (ML) in the lyrics to the song ‘Smash the Social Contract’ proclaimed “The proletarian party RCPB (ML) leading and guiding the working class to unite to smash the contract”.