Martin Hunt has posted names of a number of researchers and
to post excerpts from their works. I have recently been reading
Robert Jay Lifton's "Thought Reform & the Psychology of
(Norton, 1961). This book is often cited as the seminal work in the
development of various "mind control" theories (namely, those
Singer and Hassan). At the end of his book, Lifton presents eight
criteria which he suggests can measure the amount of
present in any environment. Some (but not all) of these criteria have
been adopted by Singer and Hassan as their own criteria to determine
whether or not an organization should be labeled a "dangerous
Since the book is lengthy (510 pages), rather than post the entire
book, I offer this critique.
This book was not at all what I expected it to be. Lifton describes
himself as a "neo-Freudian," and a large part of the book
the childhood experiences of the various people he interviewed.
Lifton attempts to relate each subject's coping skills while in a
"totalist environment" to the patient's childhood experiences
especially the relationship to father and/or mother.
Lifton presents a series of case studies. Surprisingly, none of his
patients were military prisoners of war. Lifton interviewed a total
of 40 subjects. He presents detailed case studies of eleven of these
subjects in his book. These case studies consist primarily of
personal histories and might make entertaining reading for those
pf a voyeuristic bent.
Lifton's 40 subjects fall into one of two groups: 25 Western
civilians imprisoned in Chinese jails and 15 Westernized Chinese
intellectuals who fled mainland China to refuge in Hong Kong after
having had some experience with Communist "re-education
The Western Prisoners
Lifton deals with the experiences of the Western civilians and the
Westernized Chinese in two separate sections of his book. I will
comment upon both.
All of the Western civilian citizens incarcerated in Chinese prisons
became Lifton's subjects after they were released from prison and
transported from China to Hong Kong. The majority of the 25 released
civilian prisoners were missionaries (13); also represented were
businessmen (4), journalists (2), physicians (2), a research scholar
(1), a university professor (1), a sea captain (1), and a housewife
NONE (that's right, not one) of these subjects was successfully
"converted" to Communism. They all related experiences of how
learned to "play the game." Learning the rules of the game was
difficult for some than for others, but in the end they all learned.
The rules of the game were: invent a criminal activity, admit to
criminal activity, confess your crime, repent, participate in group
study, reflect on your life and invent even more crimes, confess to
those crimes, repent, pretend you've been redeemed, get released from
prison and go home. The big catch, and the part most difficult for
the Westerners to adjust to, was that the invented crimes had to sound
believable and the pretended confessions had to sound real.
A few of the Western prisoners had more difficulty than the rest in
learning how to play the game. These Westerners received more severe
treatment (beatings and torture) than others who caught onto the game
early and played their assigned roles well. A couple of the Western
prisoners told Lifton that they went through brief periods when they
were unsure if they actually *were* criminals, but none of them
embraced Communism because of these doubts.
Other prisoners stated that they developed a new sensitivity about the
poor, the uneducated, the "masses," which they'd never thought
before their incarceration. This is the closest to "thought
that any of them underwent.
Several of the prisoners went through what might be termed "nervous
breakdowns" while in prison. Since of they were subjected to severe
torture (one had his back broken and received minimal medical
treatment) and prolonged interrogation, the "breakdowns"
appear to be
a reaction to physical abuse and abysmal living conditions rather than
efforts at "thought reform."
All-in-all, the stories told in the book make for an interesting read.
None of the stories demonstrates that Chinese "thought reform"
were effective at converting prisoners into good Communists. In fact,
thought reform was a total failure. Rather, the stories demonstrate
the incredible resilience of humans in the face of inhumane treatment.
At this point, nearly halfway through the book, I began wondering when
Lifton was going to show the Communists' successful use of thought
reform techniques. He identified the techniques utilized by the
prison guards and interrogators, but failed to present a single
incident when these these techniques were used with success.
I decided that Lifton would present successful applications of thought
reform measures in the next section of his book, which contained his
interviews with Westernized Chinese intellectuals. I'll report on
that section in my next post to this thread.