HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol

Parallels Between the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Communist Chinese Thought Reform

The US public was shocked in the 1950s when US soldiers who were released from Communist Chinese POW camps returned to the United States espousing the ideals of Communism. Because of movies like the Manchurian Candidate, people often believe that Chinese Communist Thought Reform (aka "brainwashing") involved some sinister combination of torture, drugs, hypnotism, and Pavlovian conditioning. In fact, none of these things were involved, and none of these things are effective at inducing a forced ideological conversion. Torture simply increases resistance to the ideas which one is attempting to inculcate, and rational argumentation also frequently increases resistance. In fact, following on the heels of the return of US soldiers who had been converted to Communist ideology, the CIA launched a covert experimental project known as MKULTRA which attempted to use drugs, torture, hypnosis, etc. to achieve mind control. However, MKULTRA was a dismal failure, since none of these techniques work.

Actually, there was nothing in Chinese Communist Thought Reform which had not been around for thousands of years. The essential techniques of Chinese Communist Thought Reform included harnessing the power of groups and utilizing confession, rewards, etc. One of the best accounts of these techniques can be found in psychiatrist Edgar H. Schein's monograph titled Brainwashing. The techniques of thought reform had been developed for use in reeducating the Chinese peasantry in Marxist ideology, since the peasants were not proletarians, and it was assumed that they were tainted by bourgeoise values. The use of thought reform with American POWs seems to have almost been an afterthought, perhaps motivated by a desire to share the truth with them.

The power of groups to influence the thoughts and beliefs of individuals was demonstrated powerfully in an experiment conducted in 1951 by Solomon Asch known as the Asch Conformity Line Experiment. In this experiment subjects were presented with the two cards shown below and asked which line on the second card was the same length as the line on the first card.

Asch experiment

Subjects were shown the cards under two different conditions. In the first condition, the subjects were alone, and their answers were nearly always correct. In the second condition, the subject was in a group with seven other people. The seven others were all confederates of the experimenter, and all gave the same wrong answer. The subject was called on to answer last. The purpose of the experiment was to see if the pressure to conform to the group would cause the subjects to give the wrong answers. Over one third of the subjects in this condition gave the wrong answer, which shows that the pressure to conform to the group can cause people to say that black is white. This is not so surprising, as group unanimity is beneficial for the survival of the species. Religions and other groups have utilized the power of groups to promote a unified ideology since the dawn of history: just think about reciting the Nicene Creed in unison at a Christian mass.

In describing Chinese Communist Thought Reform, Schein states, "The crux of the Chinese approach has been to immerse the prisoner in a small group of other prisoners who are as or more advanced in their reform than he" (p. 2). This is very much the position of a newcomer to an Alcoholics Anonymous group or to one's first day in a 12-step treatment center. Schein also tells us:

If a man was captured by the Chinese, however, he found instead of harshness and brutality a friendly welcome, an outstretched hand, and a greeting in broken English of "Welcome," "Congratulations, you have been liberated," or "You have now joined the Fighters for Peace" ... POWs were not viewed as enemy troops but as misguided, uneducated, or unawakened people who had been "tricked into fighting for an evil capitalist society," and who could be brought to see the "truth" about the Korean war and the basic validity of Communist peace efforts.

Needless to say, the newcomer to AA is also welcomed in a friendly manner as a misguided and uneducated individual who needs to be enlightened as to the AA way of life.

Next, let us look at AA's steps four, five, and ten:

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

In Chapter Five of AA's Big Book, William Wilson makes it very clear that doing Step Four means making a written inventory to be used for Step Five's confession. Wilson states:

Referring to our list again. Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and frightened? Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? The inventory was ours, not the other man's. When we saw our faults we listed them. We placed them before us in black and white. We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight...

We reviewed our own conduct over the years past. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate? Whom had we hurt? Did we unjustifiably arouse jealousy, suspicion or bitterness? Where were we at fault, what should we have done instead? We got this all down on paper and looked at it...

If you have already made a decision, and an inventory of your grosser handicaps, you have made a good beginning. That being so you have swallowed and digested some big chunks of truth about yourself.

The inventory from Step Four forms the basis of the confession in Step Five, but the AA member is not done yet; according to Step Ten, the member will continue the process of inventory and admission of wrongs for the rest of their lives. Moreover, if one has ever attended an AA meeting, one will notice that the shares consist of tales of degradation and sin which end in redemption by the AA program.

In describing Chinese Communist Thought Reform, Schein tells us:

Everyone in the group was expected to write out a detailed autobiography (the illiterates could always find scribes to whom to dictate their life story) as a basis for pinpointing sources of reactionary tendencies in his past and as preparation for revealing his "innermost" thoughts to the group...

A heavy emphasis was given to self-examination and confession in the context of small group discussion, with the aim of producing a genuine severance of all emotional ties to the past and a rebuilding of the student's self-image in terms of the new Communist society...

Once he saw his guilt, he was expected to confess, repent, and reform the undesirable thoughts, attitudes, feelings and actions which had led to his crimes in the first place.

The Twelfth Step of AA reads as follows:

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In an article on Chinese Communist Thought Reform titled "Forcible Indoctrination and Personality Change," psychologist Robert R. Holt tells us that:

Thought reform demands that its victims be active in reforming others. This is one of its shrewdest strokes: at one blow it gains useful allies and catspaws, and forces the person to shift from a passively receptive to an actively involved role. Under the guise of what Christianity calls "salvation through works," it enforces what every teacher knows is the best way of learning--instructing someone else. By being forced to denounce his friends and associates, the prisoner reaches a point of no return in commitment to the regime; by persuading new prisoners who are struggling to defend values he himself has denounced and given up, he helps convince himself that he did the right thing.

AA's Step Six reads as follows:

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

The character defects to be removed by God in AA clearly parallel the reactionary tendencies to be removed from people via the study of the correct Communist precepts.

On entering a 12-step residential treatment program, one will find that one's phone is taken away, that reading anything but AA literature is forbidden, and that all contact with the outside world is reduced to the absolute minimum. Schein says the following about POWs undergoing thought reform:

The prisoner's social and emotional supports were undermined by his being completely cut off from any communication with the outside (no incoming or outgoing mail was permitted, and no non-Communist newspapers, etc. were available).

There are a number of other ways in which AA resembles Chinese Communist Thought Reform. It is frequently said that the purpose of brainwashing techniques is ego destruction. Interestingly, Wilson states that the purpose of the 12 steps is "ego deflation" or "ego puncturing." For example, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions states, "All of A.A.'s Twelve Steps ask us to go contrary to our natural desires . . . they all deflate our egos."

In Chapter Five of AA's Big Book, Wilson states, "The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness." Of course, to a Marxist, selfishness is the sine qua non of the capitalist, and conversion to Marxism equates to the elimination of selfishness.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, tells us that brainwashing substitutes "thought-terminating clichés" for reason. Anyone who spends much time in AA soon sees that its members speak in slogans which function as thought-terminating clichés. Lifton also states that societies like Communist China emphasize doctrine over person. Of course, AA's Twelfth Tradition states, "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities."

AA happily denies that it is a therapy or a treatment, and rather, characterizes itself as a spiritual fellowship. In fact, AA is a process of identity transformation and ideological reform, as is Chinese Communist Thought Reform.

And what happened to those POWs after they returned to the US? Was the conversion to Marxism permanent? In most cases the answer was no. The returning POWs were now living in groups which endorsed a capitalist ideology, and in weeks or months this had its effect, and the POWs deconverted from Marxism and reconverted to capitalism. This is why AA insists that people "Keep coming back." So that the identity transformation does not disappear.

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