Cults and communes

Thought reformers: Four controversial religious movements that some have labelled ‘cults’.

Three women held in captivity in London for decades were part of a Maoist political commune. How do cults and extremists groups tempt in and then control their devotees?

  • Is this something to do with the slavery case in the news?

    Yes, although recent revelations have cast doubt over whether ‘slavery’ is really the right word. Last week it emerged that three missing women aged 69, 57 and 30 had been freed from a house in Brixton, South London where they had been trapped for 30 years. The media initially reported that the women had been constantly imprisoned in the property while being subjected to physical and mental abuse. But since then the story has taken on a different character.

  • So they weren’t imprisoned after all?

    Not in the way that was first assumed. The three women had contact with neighbours, hospitals, social services and housing departments. So they weren’t locked away from the outside world altogether. But they were nevertheless trapped for more than 30 years, isolated from normal social contact including with their families. The couple who owned the house led an insular far-left group in the 1970s, ostensibly running a bookshop but in reality creating a small commune made up of self-described Maoists and characterised as ‘cult-like’.

  • In what way?

    Those who had jobs gave all of their income to the collective. Dissent from official doctrines was banned and outsiders were treated with suspicion. Members wore the red badges of Chairman Mao at all times, and believed that the Chinese Red Army would imminently arrive to liberate them from capitalism and usher in a communist utopia in Brixton. Even after the group was disbanded, a man calling himself Comrade Bala and his wife held sway over a few remaining members right up until their recent arrest on slavery charges.

  • And those members were the three women?

    The two older women were linked to the Maoist sect. Both of them had come to London to study – one from Ireland, the other from Malaysia. It has also emerged that a third woman who had joined the group while studying law at the LSE died mysteriously after falling from a window at a house belonging to the Balakrishnans in 1996.

  • Why can’t people just run away from a cult?

    It’s easy to say that from the outside. But what makes organisations like this so dangerous is that they trap people into psychological dependency. Members are made to share absolutely everything with the leaders, both emotionally and physically. The outside world is treated as dangerous and evil and anybody who leaves is labelled a traitor. As the youngest of the three women, Rosie, said: ‘We are flies trapped in a spider’s web.’

  • Are all cults and communes like this?

    Not necessarily. A cult is simply a new and non-mainstream religion, and most communes are places where people are free to come and go. But ‘totalist’ or ‘destructive’ cult leaders brainwash their members and attempt to control every part of their lives.

  • I’d never join a group like that.

    Good. But cults aren’t as easy to spot as you might think, and they often target students who have just left home and are looking for somewhere to belong. They can come in many guises, from religious sects to political ideologies to self-help groups. If an organisation promises you rebirth or salvation and claims to offer absolute truth without allowing debate or dissent, you should be very wary of it.

  • What should I do if someone I know is in a cult?

    Keep talking and writing to them. Be affectionate and attentive even if they ignore, reject or insult you. Don’t attack their beliefs or their leader, and don’t try to force them to leave. Just make sure they know that you are there for them. If you think someone you know might be in a cult, seek advice from experts. The UK’s Cult Information Centre can be reached on 0845 4500 868.

You Decide

  1. What is the difference between a religion and a cult?


  1. Do some research and list three things cults do to brainwash their members.

Word Watch

This area in south London was famous as a left-wing enclave in the 1970s. In one election, five of the ten candidates were to the left of the Labour Party, which was at the time quite radical. But even Marxists saw Comrade Bala’s movement as extremist.
Chairman Mao became the first leader of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 after leading the socialists to victory in a long and bitter civil war. His philosophy followed Marx but diverged from the Russian leader Joseph Stalin, emphasising the role of the peasantry and taking on a more mystical flavour.
Red Army
The army of the Chinese Communist Party, which was instrumental not only in winning the civil war but also in spreading communist propaganda.
Psychologists sometimes refer to brainwashing as ‘thought reform’. In simple terms, it is the process of changing someone’s beliefs and the way that they think, often against their will.

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Cults and communes
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