CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Getting Unsaved from the Sixties: Stephen Kent’s "From Slogans to Mantras"

by Massimo Introvigne

esoterismo guenoniano e mistero cristiano

Read from faraway Italy, Stephen Kent’s book From Slogans to Mantras: Social Protest and Religious Conversion in the Late Vietnam War Era (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001) makes for interesting reading. Surely, there was a need for a book on this subject, least we were left with the impression that the move of a sizeable number of political radicals of the 1960s "from slogans to mantras", i.e. from radical politics to new religious movements, occurred only in Italy. In the latter country, the theme dominated the early sociology of new religious movements (well before a new generation of scholars, including the undersigned, imported into Italy a different approach from the U.K. and the U.S.). Books like the two volumes of Studi sulla produzione sociale del sacro (Naples: Liguori, 1978-1980) showed how much leading Italian sociologists (including Franco Ferrarotti) were impressed by the strange sight of political radicals joining Eastern religious movements. Mauro Bergonzi’s Inchiesta sul nuovo misticismo (Bari: Laterza, 1980) made the theme popular even among non-scholars. In fact, former political radicals remain very visible to this date among the Italian leadership of the Osho Rajneesh movement, ISKCON and the Sathya Sai Baba organization.

For long, Italian scholars regarded this as a peculiarly Italian phenomenon. Nothing comparable in magnitude was discussed in other European countries, with the possible exception of the Rajneesh movement in the U.K. and the Netherlands; in France, it seemed that former radicals did indeed turn religious, but rather joined Islam or Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Stephen Kent now contradicts a former literature on political radicals (see his Appendix, pp. 191-201), which largely claimed that the slogans to mantras passage involved a few militants at best, and makes the case for a prevalence of the phenomenon among North American radicals on a much larger scale than it was previously believed. Kent also offers an explanation of the passage: it was the failure of radical political action, and the widespread persuasion that there were no political alternatives left, that led leading figures of the protest to join several different new religious movements. Kent discusses in particular the Divine Light Mission, Chögyam Trungpa, ISKCON, 3HO, Transcendental Meditation and the Meher Baba movement, none of them is described with sympathy, whilst the author’s well-known harsh criticism of NRMs resurfaces when he discusses how some radicals did not turn East but joined Scientology, the Unification Church or the Children of God/The Family (in the latter case, his lack of sympathy is confirmed when, by referring to Judge Ward’s English decision, he fails to inform his readers that Ward finally ruled in favour of The Family). Leaving aside Kent’s personal evaluations, the Italian reader is surprised by the total lack of references to the Osho Rajneesh movement, which is the single group most often joined by former political radicals in Italy (and the subject of at least anecdotical tales about former radicals in the UK by scholars such as Judith Coney). Majid Valcarenghi, one of the most important radical student leaders in Italy, became a Rajneesh devotee and converted his protest magazine Re Nudo (The Naked King) into a publication covering both Rajneesh and political issues, a role it maintains to this date. One wonders whether there are no similar instances among American Rajneeshees, or they simply escaped Kent for whatever reason.

In comparing Kent’s book with the early works on the same issue by Italian sociologists, the main difference is the evaluation of the passage. Kent’s conclusion is negative: the "retreat into mystical religion often proved to be personally harmful and socially ineffective" (p. 183), a judgement understandably shared by many of those who rejected the passage and remained active in secular politics. Italian early sociologists of NRMs, although also suspicious of escapism (most of them having been, after all, personally involved in left-wing politics in the 1960s), reached less negative conclusions. The difference does not derive only from the fact that Kent is well-known for his support of anti-cult campaigns, whilst some of these Italian sociologists eventually evolved into what Kent would probably call "cult apologists". The main difference in the Italian scenario is the prevalence of terrorism. Kent quotes Amarendra (David Leiberman)’s reaction when it had to confront, in 1969-1970, the apparent failure of political activism. "Either - the next step was violence… in terms of real revolution. You know, getting guns and… taking the next step, Or just looking for an alternative" (pp. 58-59). Since, in his own words, Leiberman "wasn’t prepared to go to the next step and start killing people and blowing up things", he settled for the "alternative" and joined the Hare Krishnas. Kent seems to regard the terrorist alternative as something less than a real threat. In Italy, however, unlikely in Germany, Japan (and perhaps the U.S.), the Red Brigades terrorism did enjoy a mass support, at a time evaluated by the police in a wider circle of more than 30,000 "collaborators" (right-wing terrorism was also a threat in Italy, of course, but it obviously attracted less former radicals of the 1960s). There were more former radicals who became "collaborators" of the Red Brigades, or even full-blown terrorists, than ex-radicals who joined a NMR. Understandably, Italian sociologists regarded the alternative of joining a religious movement as less personally and socially "harmful" than joining the Red Brigades, and wondered whether some NRMs were not able to convert real violence into its metaphorical equivalent.

"The religious path, Kent writes, is fraught with dangers that can harm if not destroy participants, their loved ones, and the communities in which they live" (p. 188). Perhaps it is. But these dangers are not everywhere: Kent did not study how many former radicals joined a mainline religion (many did in Italy) and led productive lives there, often including renewed forms of social and political activism. And he does not tell us how many ended up with positive experiences even of religious movements he does not like; and how some NRMs may have been in fact able to domesticate desperate radicals who may have otherwise turned to terrorism. Finally, it would be interesting to follow those of the ex-radicals described by Kent who are now critical of the NRM they once joined into their subsequent career, and to ask the question whether an anti-cult attitude is not for them a nostalgic return to the 1960s: from slogans to mantras - and to slogans again.

As much as one may disagree with Kent, however, when he abandons the value-free attitude of the sociologist in order to pass a moral judgement on those who went from slogans to mantras, and declare them unsaved philistines, the book raises an important issue, and one more discussed so far in Europe than in North America. The discussion Kent starts here on the postpolitical fate of the 1960s radicals is important, and deserves to be continued.

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