CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Fighting the three Cs: Cults, Comics, and Communists – The Critic of Popular Culture as Origin of Contemporary Anti-Cultism

by Massimo Introvigne
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 conference, Vilnius, Lithuania

imgLet me begin by returning to a fateful day in the French Parliament, a day some of us still consider with a mixture of anger and disappointment. A campaign was conducted, for several years, against the manipulation of the French population, including the youth and even the children, by a number of sinister organizations accused of practicing one or another form of mind control. These organizations were believed to come mostly from abroad, and in the peculiar anti-American French climate it had become fashionable to regard most of them as simply “American”. More than one parliamentary commission had confirmed that the reports about the harmful practices of these organizations were, unfortunately, true. Now the time had come to pass appropriate legislation. The opposition by the U.S. Department of State and the local American Embassy was ignored. French politicians, normally divided along partisan lines on almost every conceivable issue, were strangely unanimous. So were the media, with very limited exceptions. In fact many Roman Catholics, afraid of possible competition in the indoctrination of the French youth, fought side by side with hard line Communists who suspected “American” influences. Finally, the law had reached the Parliament’s floor. It called for a continuous watching of the targeted organizations, which might be put out of business in case of two breaches of the law. Militant oppositional associations whose names evoked the defense of the family were authorized to participate in the lawsuits. The Communists did not vote the law, but only because they regarded it as too mild. But the law was passed, to the unanimous jubilation of the French media.

Did you recognize the event? Possibly not. Rather than the French law of 2001 against cults, I am discussing the passing of the French law of 1949 against comics[1]. That law was indeed passed, based on an unprecedented campaign against the alleged mind control exerted by “American” comics, with Mickey Mouse, Tarzan and the police and horror comics particularly singled out as manipulative and dangerous. The campaign’s strength derived from the co-operation of Communist and Christian (Roman Catholic and Protestant) criticism of comics, within the framework of a strong anti-American sentiment. The fear that the United States may colonize French culture was very strong, despite some little help France had just received from America in World War II. What happened in France was not unusual. Laws and administrative measures against comics were passed between 1949 and 1955 in several countries, from Belgium to Korea, and the anti-American theme was strong even among such prominent American allies as the United Kingdom and Canada[2]. Even in the United States the same anti-comic campaign (minus the anti-Americanism, of course) was afoot. In other countries, including Italy, anti-comics draft law were defeated by a narrow margin.

What was going on, exactly? And aren’t these the same arguments heard in the 1990s about the cults? A relation seems indeed to exist, and the common theme is mind control, better known as brainwashing since 1950. In the 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Thomas Condon (1915-1996), the sinister Dr. Yen Lo subjects an American patrol captured during the Korean War to brainwashing, and explains how it all works to an audience of Chinese and Soviet generals. Brainwashing is not so uncommon, Dr. Yen Lo explains: as a certain Dr. Wertham recently proved, even Americans routinely brainwash their working class children through horror comics featuring vampires and other monsters[3]. Condon’s fictional character, by quoting the non-fictional Dr. Wertham within the context of the most famous literary depiction of brainwashing, reminds us of a connection between brainwashing and comics, which has haunted popular culture studies for decades.

The academic study of popular culture (including dime novels, pulps, comics, detective and Western novels, and later popular movies) was born under a cloud. The first question which led some left-wing scholars to seriously consider popular culture was why the masses, rather than enthusiastically embrace liberal political causes, largely supported conservative and reactionary movements. As Dick Anthony reminded us in his seminal study of brainwashing, around 1920, three members of the innermost circle of Sigmund Freud’s students, all Socialist sympathizers, extended their teacher’s critique of religious indoctrination methods to conservative politics and schools of thought hostile to Socialism. Paul Federn (1871-1950) was the first to define the concept of «authoritarianism» in 1919.[4] According to Federn, authoritarianism is a personality trait whereby individuals who cannot make decisions case by case, typically prefer to rely on absolute-type ideologies, either political or religious. It was Federn who introduced his student Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) to psychoanalytic theory. In the 1920s, Federn also collaborated with Erich Fromm (1900-1980) at the Psychoanalytic Institute in Frankfurt.

With Freud’s support and approval, Federn, Reich and Fromm further developed the concept of the authoritarian personality. They traced its origins primarily to sexual repression and an authoritarian childhood education that fixated the individual at the anal and oral stage of the Freudian model of development. Such a situation could give rise to masochism (towards people who are believed to be in authority) and sadism (with respect to people of a lower station). This situation prevents the individual from reaching a higher, mature stage, variously defined as «genital» but also as «revolutionary» (Federn and Fromm), «liberal» and even «democratic.» We see in these reflections the first sketch of a theory that belief in an authoritarian worldview is the product of a combination of a character predisposition or tendency that was formed in childhood and of a cunning ideological indoctrination that relies on the sado-masochistic results of a failed childhood development, manipulating them for its own purposes.

Beginning in 1929, under the National-Socialist regime, Federn, Reich and Fromm applied the authoritarian personality model to explain why Germans embraced or «converted» to Hitler’s ideology. Particularly, Fromm’s wide-ranging interests — from psychology and psychoanalysis to the social sciences — led him to Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research. Founded in 1923, the Institute gave birth to the «Frankfurt School,» a fusion of psychoanalysis and Marxism. The concept of the authoritarian personality, and the description of how Fascist regimes exploit the tendency to authoritarianism of some individuals by indoctrinating them, played a major role in the development of the Frankfurt School's body of theory, under the leadership of Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Theodor Wiesegrund Adorno (1903-1969).

The «authoritarian personality» and indoctrination theory became a widely accepted explanation of the broad popularity of Fascist and Nazi ideologies. As noted, it held that unscrupulous ideologues and reactionary regimes could easily indoctrinate individuals who had been so predisposed by the education they had received in childhood. Indoctrination, the Frankfurt school argued, took advantage of three principal means: religion, popular culture (Western pulps and cheap novels, popular in Germany, were particularly singled out), and political ideology reduced to simple, black-and-white slogan.

The Nazi regime persecuted the leaders of the Frankfurt School both because they were political antagonists and because they were Jews; most of them migrated to the United States. In 1934, Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research was reorganized under the aegis of Columbia University in New York and took the name of International Institute for Social Research. Its research was successful among academics, but was also criticized for its political bias. While the authors exposed «conservative» form of totalitarianism of various kinds, they were less concerned about the type of personality or totalitarian manipulation that brought so many to embrace Communism.

Psychoanalist Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994), a member of the Vienna Institute of Psychoanalysis who had migrated to the United States in 1934, played an important role in the subsequent discussions on indoctrination. Gradually, the American group of post-Frankfurt theorists of totalitarian influence became divided between those who remained faithful to their left-wing politics, and others who accepted to focus their attention on indoctrination leading not to reactionary or conservative ideologies but to Communism. Most of the latter worked in projects sponsored by several U.S. government agencies.

The Frankfurt theory, as re-elaborated in the United States, argued that vulnerable members of the society, including children in general and members of the working classes with limited education, are at first implicitly prepared and later subtly indoctrinated into totalitarian and authoritarian worldviews through the triple agency of authoritarian, “cultic” religion (that Fromm finally distinguished from the type of religion he called “humanistic”), popular culture, and black-and-white political slogans. To some extent in this criticism medium and message coincided: authoritarian (later called “cultic”) religion, the simple ideology of popular culture, and Communism (or Fascism) were both the medium and the aim of totalitarian influence. It is also the case that, in traveling from continental Europe to the U.S., the Frankfurt theory of totalitarian influence was somewhat reduced in scope. Not all religion was believed to predispose to totalitarianism, only the “cultic” variety. Not all political black-and-white slogans were evidence of totalitarianism, only Communist (and Nazi, but the latter were no longer an actual danger). Not all popular culture was bad: the powerful American movie industry was largely left alone. The U.S. version of the Frankfurt theory became the theoretical support for a struggle against what one may call the three Cs: cults, Communism, and comics.

To the oppositional counter-movements which opposed, for a variety of reasons, the allegedly damaging influence of “cultic” religion, popular culture, and Communism, the late-Frankfurt theory offered a secular explanation of how the weaker members of society were indoctrinated into totalitarian ideologies. As far as Communism was concerned, Cold War propaganda offered a simplified reduction of totalitarian influence theory under the name of “brainwashing”, a word coined by Edward Hunter (1902-1978), an OSS and later CIA agent whose cover job was that of reporter, first with English-language publications in China and later at the Miami Daily News. Hunter expounded the theory of brainwashing in several books, starting from Brain-Washing in Red China,[5] first published in 1951. As used by CIA propaganda, the brainwashing theory was a caricature of the complex, Frankfurt-style scholarly analysis of totalitarian influence. In a 1953 speech Allen Welsh Dulles (1893-1969), then the CIA director, explained that «the brain under these circumstances [i.e. under Communist influence] becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius over which it has no control.»[6]

Secular opposition to totalitarian indoctrination based on brainwashing both concurred and competed with religious opposition to the same groups perceived as totalitarian. Thus, the secular anti-cult movement which accused certain religious “cults” of brainwashing converts both co-operated and competed with a sectarian counter-cult movement which criticized “cults” because their “heretical” teachings were opposed to traditional Christianity. Whilst the distinction between “anti-cult” and “counter-cult” movements is common[7], a similar distinction can be established between a “secular” anti-Communism using the brainwashing argument and a religious counter-Communism opposing Communist atheism; and between a secular and a religious critic of popular culture.

For a number of reasons, criticism of popular culture as a way of brainwashing both children and the working classes into a black-and-white totalitarian worldview focused on comics. Frankfurt theorists did notice comics at a quite early stage, and focused their criticism on the two most popular genres in the 1930s and 1940s: superhero and horror comics. After the early “platinum age” (a prehistory of sort for comics), modern comics were born in the 1930s with the predecessors of the companies still dominating the market today. Superheroes and horror comics were born almost at the same time. Issue no. 6 of New Fun Comics (October 1935) by National Periodical Publications (the predecessor of contemporary DC) featured the first instalment of a story known as “Dr. Occult, the Ghost Detective”. The story is famous for several reasons. It is the first story published in a comic book by Jerome "Jerry" Siegel (1914-1996) and Joseph Shuster (1914-1992) (disguised here under the pseudonyms of Leger and Reuths), the world-famous creators of Superman. As the reader will learn in subsequent instalments, Dr. Occult has special powers of his own, and he is in fact the first comic book superhero of the Siegel-Shuster duo. Last but not least, the first villain he meets is a vampire. From issue 7 (Jan. 1936) New Fun Comics will be renamed More Fun Comics and it will take two more issues, 8 (Feb. 1936) and 9 (Mar. 1936), for Dr. Occult to dispose of the vampire (and go on to deal with werewolves). Three years later, Batman himself in its fifth Detective Comics story (issues 31, Oct. 1939, and 32, Nov. 1939) had to deal with a vampire, The Monk, and his female assistant Darla in order to save his girlfriend Julie Madison (yes, Batman did indeed have a girlfriend at that time).

Frankfurt-style comics critics disliked both superheroes and horror stories. Superheroes were criticized as quintessential icons of an omnipotent father, playing the same role authoritarian religion, in Freud’s and Fromm’s view, attributed to God. Readers of superhero comics were indoctrinated into the ultimately totalitarian idea that a benevolent supreme power (symbolized by the superhero, but being in the real world the State, the ruling class, or organized religion) will ultimately take care of the job, if only the common folks would learn to leave it to him (more rarely, as in the case of Wonder Woman, to her). Horror comics, in the late Frankfurt theory combining class sociology and psychoanalysis, perpetuated the fixation of both children and child-like illiterate working classes into the anal and oral stage of development, with their attending (or at least alleged) masochism and sadism predisposing those thus indoctrinated both to obey unconditionally the powers that be and to put their potential for violence at the disposal of the same powers.

Late Frankfurt theorists, thus, developed the core arguments of an anti-comics theory, based on secular arguments. At the same time, both Roman Catholic and Protestant morality watchdogs (including the Catholic Legion of Decency, originally created in 1933 to lobby against immorality in motion pictures)[8] also focused on comics as pernicious elements of popular culture, for different reasons, branding them as immoral, not respecting the traditional taboos about sexuality and marriage, and conductive to juvenile delinquency (the latter a point of serious concern for secular critics, too)[9]. Both forms of criticism of comics are found in the 1930s and in the 1940s both in the U.S. and in Europe. However, as in the case of oppositional coalitions against Communism and “cultic” religion, political success could be achieved only through some degree of co-operation between the secular anti-comic movement and the religious counter-comic movement. They made strange bedfellows, since their original aims were not the same. Religious crusaders against comics were normally politically conservative, focused on sex and violence and targeted primarily horror comics. The politics of those influenced by the Frankfurt-style criticism were more often of the left-wing s type; and the allegedly “fascist” superhero comic was seen as a vehicle for brainwashing the masses into totalitarianism at least as dangerous as the horror comic. Coalitions, however, were built in several countries. In France, conservative Catholic criticism of comics, whose pioneer before World War II had been Father Louis Bethléem (1869-1940)[10] – an anti-Jewish priest who labeled Mickey Mouse as “a Jewish Masonic mouse” (Walt Disney [1901-1966] being, after all, a Freemason and the mouse’s publishers in France, the Offenstadt brothers, Jews) –, was substantially translated in their own languages by secular humanists and communists after 1945, leading to one of the largest hostile campaigns in comics history and to the law passed in 1949 [11]. The situation in Europe (and in some Canadian provinces) was, however, different from the United States. Critics of comics outside the U.S. denounced them as a vehicle of postwar American cultural imperialism, a criticism that conservative Catholics (who regarded the U.S. as mostly Protestant) and political left-wing activists may share[12]. In the U.S., of course, anti-Americanism could not be a factor, but populist opposition to “immoral big business” plaid very much the same role in building coalitions between religious and secular opponents of popular culture.

How this strange alliance worked is described in Amy Kiste Nyberg’ revisionist interpretation of Seduction of the Innocent,[13] a well-known book published in 1954 by the American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895-1981)[14]. According to Wertham, most comic books induce a sort of «negative conditioning» in America’s youth leading to juvenile delinquency, totalitarian politics, and sexual problems, including homosexuality. By that time, Batman no longer had a girlfriend, and even those who had not read Wertham's book were quoting his single paragraph where he accused Batman of doing it with Robin, the butler Alfred, or perhaps even with both. Wertham’s book and his testimony before Congress led to the signing in 1954 of the Comics Code that included a ban on representing horror themes and characters in American comic books. Similar or more draconian results were achieved in the U.K. through the passage of the Children and Young persons [Harmful Publications] Act and in France by the strict enforcement of the law of July 16, 1949[15]. Both in the U.K. (where members of the Communist Party and clergymen, very strange bedfellows indeed in the Cold War climate, both plaid a prominent part in the anti-comics campaign) and in France results were achieved because of the alliance between secular anti-comic and Christian counter-comic activists. In Italy on the other hand the anti-comic offensive was led by Catholic politicians who alienated the left by suggesting that comics, particularly Western comics with often made bandits into heros, had a cavalier attitude towards private property and were, therefore, “Communist”. Christian Democrats generated a draft law which was defeated in Parliament because of strong Communist filibustering, and also because some prominent Catholic intellectuals, including conservative novelist Giovanni Guareschi [1908-1968, who happened to be a comic fan himself], came out in favor of comics[16]. Where there was no alliance between Christian and Communist (or populist) anti-comics activists, such as in Italy, comics draft laws were defeated.

Dr Wertham’s career, in fact, confirms this conclusion. Whilst Wertham has been normally depicted by scholars of comics as the ultimate champion of censorship and bigotry, Nyberg shows how the New York psychiatrist was a politically liberal doctor who based his anti-comic crusade on the Frankfurt-style criticism of popular culture. Both superheroes and horror characters, Wertham concluded, were brainwashing children into different forms of violence and totalitarianism. Nyberg, however, is no unconditional admirer of Wertham. In fact, she notes that in order to (partially) achieve his aims the liberal, left-wing Wertham deliberately presented his anti-comic criticism in a form divorced from its political premises, and allied itself with the religious critics of comics. When, with the Comics Code, his campaign led to an almost total ban on horror comics, Wertham was not satisfied, since his criticism also included superhero comics, which returned to the dominant position they had enjoyed before World War II once the horror competition was eliminated. In France, on the other hand, the law of 1949 in fact made it impossible for U.S. superhero comics to achieve the position of prominence they reached almost anywhere else in the world; paradoxically, however, the law did not protect the French comic market from foreign dominance since Belgian comics, largely published in their original Belgian version by Catholic publishers and unobjectionable, in turn dominated the French market for decades – Mickey Mouse also bravely resisted both Communist and Catholic assaults, and to this date Disney comics are more popular in France than in the U.S.

In 1964, ten years after Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, Italian academic and novelist Umberto Eco published one of its most famous nonfiction work, Apocalittici e Integrati[17]. The book settled Eco’s cultural accounts with the Frankfurt approach to popular culture. Eco criticized the “apocalyptic” approach to popular culture in general and comics in particular, and denied that they were capable of causing a left-wing apocalypse, brainwashing the working classes into reactionary ideologies. Eco’s book (which influenced the academic study of popular culture in several European countries for decades) also criticized the American scholars of comic art who were themselves comics fans (as such, too much “integrated” in the comics consumers community to keep the necessary critical distance) and focused only on aesthetics, dismissing early cultural studies as irrelevant. According to Eco, a genuinely social scientific approach to popular culture should be neither “apocalyptic” nor “integrated” and discuss popular culture’s very real aesthetic values within an appropriate sociological and political context.

Just as he had insisted that comics did not brainwash working classes into slave-like allegiance to capitalism, in the late 1960s Eco led a campaign against the Italian statute regarding brainwashing (under the old Italian name of “plagio”) as a criminal offense, when the statute was used against holders of minority or fringe opinions in matter religious, political, or sexual[18]. Eventually, efforts by Eco and other intellectuals (together with different arguments advanced from other quarters) influenced the decision by the Italian Constitutional Court of June 8, 1981 which declared the Italian statute against “plagio” as unconstitutional[19]. Although developments were partially different in the English-speaking world, by the early 1990s a majority of scholars maintained that brainwashing was a pseudo-scientific concept used as a political tool against unpopular groups or cultural forms, utterly incapable of explaining complicate social processes. Just as very few scholars would maintain today that new religious movements or radical political parties “brainwash” unwitting “victims” into conversion, the idea that comics “brainwash” weaker members of our societies (including children and poorly literate blue collar workers) into compliance with authoritarian powers should also be largely regarded as a myth. And only very few hard-liners would maintain that only brainwashing explains conversion to Communism.

Daily, however, we are reminded that brainwashing rethorics is not dead. It remains a convenient explanation for all sort of behaviors we intensely dislike and do not know how to explain, from Saddam Hussein’s fedayn to Hamas suicide bombers and the captors of Elizabeth Smart in Utah. Its roots in the Frankfurt criticism of popular culture also show brainwashing as a form of kitsch. A certain elite culture dismisses popular culture, be it horror comics or enthusiastic religion, as a form of extreme bad taste whose success only brainwashing may explain. Brainwashing’s roots in the movement against popular culture, thus, contribute to explain why it did not and probably will not go away. More than a scientific theory open to empirical disconfirmation, brainwashing is a cultural myth, a rhetorical tool used by powerful social forces in order to keep alternative cultural styles outside of the mainstream and comfortably dismiss them as at best irrelevant, at worst simply crazy.


[1] See Thierry Crépin, “Haro sur le gangster!”. La moralisation de la presse enfantine : 1934-1954, Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 2001.

[2] For comparative perspectives, see John A. Lent (ed.), Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign, Madison – Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, and London: Associated University Presses, 1999.

[3] Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959, p. 40.

[4] See Dick L. Anthony, “Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence. An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials”, Ph.D. Diss., Berkeley (California): Graduate Theological Union, 1996, p. 165. Here I follow substantially Anthony’s reconstruction of how the authoritarian personality theory was born.

[5] See Edward Hunter, Brain-Washing in Red China. The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds, New York: The Vanguard Press, 1951; 2nd expanded ed.: New York: The Vanguard Press, 1953.

[6] Cit. in Alan W. Scheflin – Edward M. Opton, Jr., The Mind Manipulators. A Non-Fiction Account, New York – London: Paddington, 1978., p. 437.

[7][10] See my "The Secular Anti-Cult and the Religious Counter-Cult Movement: Strange Bedfellows or Future Enemies?", in Eric Towler (ed.), New Religions and the New Europe, Aaarhus - Oxford - Oakville (Connecticut): Aarhus University Press, 1995, pp. 32-54.

[8] See Paul W. Facey, The Legion of Decency: A Sociological Analysis of the Emergence and Development of a Social Pressure Group, New York: Arno Press, 1974.

[9] See James Gilbert, Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[10] See Violaine Pellerin, “L’Abbé Béthléem, 1869-1940. Un pionnier de la lecture catholique”, M.A. Diss., Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines 1994. 

[11] See T. Crépin, op. cit.

[12] See J. A. Lent (ed.), op. cit.

[13] Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, New York – Toronto: Rinehart & Co., 1954.

[14] Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

[15] See Thierry Crépin – Thierry Groensteen (eds.), “On tue à chaque page!”: La loi de 1949 sur les publications destinées à la jeunesse, Paris: Éditions du Temps, 1999.

[16] See Juri Meda, “Vietato ai minori. Censura e fumetto nel secondo dopoguerra fra il 1949 e il 1953”, Schizzo Idee 10 [Schizzo 72], June 2002, pp. 73-88.

[17] Umberto Eco, Apocalittici e integrati. Comunicazioni di massa e teorie della cultura di massa, Milan: Bompiani, 1964.

[18] See Alberto Moravia - Umberto Eco - Adolfo Gatti - Mario Gozzano - Cesare Luigi Musatti - Ginevra Bompiani, Sotto il nome di plagio, Milan: Bompiani, 1969.

[19] Corte Costituzionale, Grasso judgment of June 8, 1981, no. 96, Giurisprudenza Costituzionale, 1, 1981, pp. 806-834. See also M. Introvigne, Il lavaggio del cervello: realtà o mito?, Leumann (Torino): Elledici, 2001.

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