Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China

a book by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D


Chapter 22: Ideological Totalism

[Google books] Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Eight Conditions of Thought Reform

as presented in
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.; W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963.

Milieu Control The most basic feature of the thought reform environment, the psychological current upon which all else depends, is the control of human communication. Through this milieu control the totalist environment seeks to establish domain over not only the individual's communication with the outside (all that he sees and hears, reads and writes, experiences, and expresses), but also — in its penetration of his inner life — over what we may speak of as his communication with himself. It creates an atmosphere uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.... (Page 420.)

Purposeful limitation of all forms of communication with outside world.

The control of human communication through environment control.

The cult doesn't just control communication between people, it also controls people's communication with themselves, in their own minds.

Mystical Manipulation The inevitable next step after milieu control is extensive personal manipulaton. This manipulation assumes a no-holds-barred character, and uses every possible device at the milieu's command, no matter how bizarre or painful. Initiated from above, it seeks to provoke specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment. This element of planned spontaneity, directed as it is by an ostensibly omniscient group, must assume, for the manipulated, a near-mystical quality. (Page 422.)

Potential convert is convinced of the higher purpose within the special group.

Everyone is manipulating everyone, under the belief that it advances the "ultimate purpose."

Experiences are engineered to appear to be spontaneous, when, in fact, they are contrived to have a deliberate effect.

People mistakenly attribute their experiences to spiritual causes when, in fact, they are concocted by human beings.

The Demand for Purity The experiential world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil. The good and the pure are of course those ideas, feelings, and actions which are consistent with the totalist ideology and policy; anything else is apt to be relegated to the bad and the impure. Nothing human is immune from the flood of stern moral judgements. (Page 423.)

The philosophical assumption underlying this demand is that absolute purity is attainable, and that anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.

The cult demands Self-sanctification through Purity.

Only by pushing toward perfection, as the group views goodness, will the recruit be able to contribute.

The demand for purity creates a guilty milieu and a shaming milieu by holding up standards of perfection that no human being can attain.

People are punished and learn to punish themselves for not living up to the group's ideals.

The Cult of Confession Closely related to the demand for absolute purity is an obsession with personal confession. Confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal, and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself. (Page 425.)

Public confessional periods are used to get members to verbalize and discuss their innermost fears and anxieties as well as past imperfections.


The environment demands that personal boundaries are destroyed and that every thought, feeling, or action that does not conform with the group's rules be confessed.

Members have little or no privacy, physically or mentally.

Aura of Sacred Science The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic dogma, holding it out as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. This sacredness is evident in the prohibition (whether or not explicit) against the questioning of basic assumptions, and in the reverence which is demanded for the originators of the Word, the present bearers of the Word, and the Word itself. While thus transcending ordinary concerns of logic, however, the milieu at the same time makes an exaggerated claim of airtight logic, of absolute "scientific" precision. Thus the ultimate moral vision becomes an ultimate science; and the man who dares to criticize it, or to harbor even unspoken alternative ideas, becomes not only immoral and irreverent, but also "unscientific". In this way, the philosopher kings of modern ideological totalism reinforce their authority by claiming to share in the rich and respected heritage of natural science. (Pages 427-428.)

The cult advances the idea that the cult's laws, rules and regulations are absolute and, therefore, to be followed automatically.

The group's belief is that their dogma is absolutely scientific and morally true.

No alternative viewpoint is allowed.

No questioning of the dogma is permitted.

Loading the Language The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. [Slogans] The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.

The cult invents a new vocabulary, giving well-known words special new meanings, making them into trite clichés. The clichés become "ultimate terms", either "god terms", representative of ultimate good, or "devil terms", representative of ultimate evil. Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: the language of non-thought. (Page 429.)

Controlling words helps to control people's thoughts.

The group uses black-or-white thinking and thought-terminating clichés.

The special words constrict rather than expand human understanding.

Non-members cannot simply comprehend what cult members are talking about.

Doctrine over Person Another characteristic feature of ideological totalism: the subordination of human experience to the claims of doctrine. (Page 430.)

Past experience and values are invalid if they conflict with the new cult morality.

The value of individuals is insignificant when compared to the value of the group.

Past historical events are retrospectively altered, wholly rewritten, or ignored to make them consistent with doctrinal logic.

No matter what a person experiences, it is belief in the dogma which is important.

Group belief supersedes individual conscience and integrity.

Dispensed Existence The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence can be recognized, and those who possess no such right.

Lifton gave a Communist example:
In thought reform, as in Chinese Communist practice generally, the world is divided into "the people" (defined as "the working class, the peasant class, the petite bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie"), and "the reactionaries" or "the lackies of imperialism" (defined as "the landlord class, the bureaucratic capitalist class, and the KMT reactionaries and their henchmen"). (Page 433.)

The group decides who has a right to exist and who does not.

The group has an elitist world view — a sharp line is drawn by cult between those who have been saved, chosen, etc. (the cult members) and those who are lost, in the dark, etc. (the rest of the world).

Former members are seen as "weak, " "lost," "evil," and "the enemy".

The cult insists that there is no legitimate alternative to membership in the cult.