Political cult is a term used to describe some groups on what is generally considered to be the political fringe. Although the majority of groups to which the term "cult" (currently often used as a pejorative term according to some comparative religion scholars) is sometimes applied are religious in nature, a number are non-religious and focus either on secular self-improvement or on political action and ideology.
Groups that some writers have termed as "political cults," mostly advocating far-left or far-right agendas, have received some attention from journalists and scholars. In their 2000 book On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth discuss about a dozen organizations in the United States and Great Britain that they characterize as cults. In a separate article Tourish says that in his usage:
"The word cult is not a term of abuse, as this paper tries to explain. It is nothing more than a shorthand expression for a particular set of practices that have been observed in a variety of dysfunctional organisations."
The term "political cult" has also been used to describe the "cult of personality" in North Korea (in a context that clearly describes practices more extreme than those in most countries with institutionalized leader cults).
American Family Foundation Guidelines
Guidelines have been developed by the American Family Foundation (AFF) that the group suggests be used for making a provisional judgment as to whether a particular group might be a "political cult" rather than simply an ideological sect that uses flamboyantly extreme rhetoric and/or elicits a high level of voluntary commitment from its core members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money and often elevates money-making duties above the group's ostensible ideological or religious goals. In a political cult, this would include excessive fund raising, especially by illegal means such as electoral campaign-finance fraud.
- The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations). In a political context, this would apply to cult-of-personality dictators, as well as other political leaders who strive for a position of authority free from oversight.
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group. In a political context, this could include criminal activities, including unprovoked violence against opponents.
- The group has an us-versus-them mentality that causes hostility towards, and/or conflict with, political opponents and the wider society to an irrational degree that usually undermines the cult's ostensible goals. Although non-cults, including mainstream political parties, also frequently encourage us-versus-them thinking, in the political cult it is carried to an extreme in which the entire world outside the cult is regarded either as the enemy or as pawns to be manipulated in the fight against the enemy; in turn, critics of the cult and other opponents are demonized in a manner that brooks no questioning from the cult's cadre.
- The group not only requires members to adhere to particular doctrines or a particular "line" (a feature of many non-cultic groups as well) but also strongly discourages or even bans any questioning or criticism of the behavior or instructions of the group's leadership, and often harshly punishes any members who persist in criticism even if such members are loyal to the "line."
- The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. In the context of a political cult, this could be compared in some respects to Stalin's cult of personality or Nazism's Fuhrerprinzip.
Examples of groups that have been described as "political cults"
The LaRouche Movement and Gino Parente's National Labor Federation (NATLFED) are examples of political groups described as "cults" that are based in the United States; another is Marlene Dixon's now-defunct Democratic Workers Party (a critical history of the DWP is given in Bounded Choice by Janja A. Lalich, a sociologist and former DWP member).
The "O", a small Marxist group in Minneapolis, is the subject of a memoir by ex-member Alexandra Stein. Organizations headed by Fred Newman, such as the International Workers Party and the New Alliance Party, have been described as a cult by political critics such as Tourish and Wohlforth, Chip Berlet, and the Anti-Defamation League. Newman is involved in both politics and psychotherapy, and has described the cult claims as false and as politically motivated.
The followers of Ayn Rand were characterized as a "cult" by economist Murray N. Rothbard during her lifetime, and later by Michael Shermer. The core group around Rand was called the "Collective" and is now defunct (the chief group disseminating Rand's ideas today is the Ayn Rand Institute). Although the Collective advocated an individualist philosophy, Rothbard claimed they were organized in the manner of a "Leninist" organization.
In Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party, a Trotskyist group led by the late Gerry Healy and strongly supported by actress Vanessa Redgrave, has been described by others, who have been involved in the Trotskyist movement, as having been a cult or as displaying cult-like characteristics in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also described as such by Tourish and Wohlforth in their writings. In his review of Tourish and Wohlforth's book, Bob Pitt, a former member of the WRP concedes that it had a "cult-like character" but argues that rather than being typical of the far left, this feature actually made the WRP atypical and "led to its being treated as a pariah within the revolutionary left itself." Workers' Struggle (LO, Lutte ouvrière) in France, publicly headed by Arlette Laguiller but revealed in the 1990s to be directed by Robert Barcia, has often been criticized as a cult, for example by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his older brother Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, as well as L'Humanité and Libération.
The Shining Path guerrilla movement active in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s has been described variously as a "cult" and an intense "cult of personality." The Tamil Tigers have also been qualified as such.
The People's Mujahedin of Iran, a leftist guerrilla movement based in Iraq, has been controversially described as a political cult and as a movement that is abusive towards it own members.
Participation of non-mainstream religious movements in politics
Some religious groups that have been described variously as cults or new religious movements participate vigorously in politics, and thus could be easily confused with political cults. Such religious groups with a strong political bent include the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon and Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation movement (which sponsors the Natural Law Party), but such groups often clearly identify themselves as being religious organizations that are motivated primarily by spiritual concerns.
Falun Gong, a spiritual movement in China, became highly politicized as a result of crackdown from the Chinese government in 1999, which officially branded it as a cult and began jailing and torturing its followers. Falun Gong protested through peaceful methods, such as protest actions overseas and the circulation of anti-communist political tracts and media critical of the Chinese government. The Chinese government has accused Falun Gong of committing acts of mass suicide, such as the controversial Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident, while Falun Gong and several Western critics accused the Chinese government of staging such acts as propaganda.
In his book Les Sectes Politiques: 1965-1995 (translation: Political cults: 1965-1995), French writer Cyril Le Tallec considered some religious groups as cults involved in politics, including the League for Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Cultural Office of Cluny, New Acropolis, Sōka Gakkai, the Divine Light Mission, Tradition Family Property (TFP), Longo-Mai, the Supermen Club and the Association for Promotion of the Industrial Arts (Solazaref).
- Miller, Timothy. Religious Movements in the United States: An Informal Introduction (2003) 
- Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986.
- Dave Mitchell, "Light to Celebrate 25th Anniversary of Its Pulitzer," Point Reyes Light, April 15, 2004 (on Synanon drug rehabilitation clinic)
- Carol Lynn Mithers, "When Therapists Drive Their Patients Crazy," California, August 1988 (on Center for Feeling Therapy, a psychotherapy clinic) 
- Stephen Butterfield, Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise, Boston: South End Press, 1985
- Compendium of press articles and public record documents on Landmark Education (successor to the "est" self-improvement organization) at 
- Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. Sociologist Janja Lalich has written that this book helps to dispel "the old myth that all cults are religious" but she criticized the authors for using what she believed was "disparaging language" (e.g. "political automatons") to describe those trapped within political cults. ("On the Edge" (review), Cultic Studies Review (online journal), 2:2, 2003 
- Tourish and Wohlforth, 2000
- Introduction to ‘Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism and Cultism’
- Christopher M. Centner, "The Cult That Is North Korea," Cultic Studies Review, 1:3 2002
- John Gittings, "The Cult and the Crisis," The Guardian, October 14, 2006 
- Bo-Mi Lim, "N. Korean kids play part in leader's personality cult," Associated Press in Chicago Sun-Times, October 12, 2005 
- James Brooke, "North Koreans Celebrate Birthday of 'Dear Leader'," New York Times, February 17, 2003
- Guidelines, American Family Foundation
- John Mintz, "Ideological Odyssey: From Old Left to Far Right," The Washington Post, January 14, 1985
- Alisa Solomon, "Commie Fiends of Brooklyn," The Village Voice, November 26, 1996.
- Janja A. Lalich, Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004 
- Alexandra Stein, Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult, St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press, 2002.
- "A Cult by Any Other Name: The New Alliance Party Dismantled and Reincarnated," Anti-Defamation League Special Report, New York, 1995 
- "Fred Newman: Lenin as Therapist," Chapter 7 of Tourish and Wolhforth 
- Cook, Sean. Walking the Talk. Castillo Theatre of 2002: Newman vs. the Anti-Defamation League. (2003). The Drama Review 47, 3:78-98.
- "Culture shock." New Therapist 24 (March/April 2003)
- Rothbard, Murray. "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult". http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard23.html. Retrieved 2009-07-30. Rothbard's essay was later revised and printed as a pamphlet by Liberty magazine in 1987, and by the Center for Libertarian Studies in 1990.
- Shermer, Michael (1997). "The Unlikeliest Cult". Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. ISBN 0-7167-3090-1. This chapter is a revised version of Shermer, Michael (1993). "The Unlikeliest Cult in History". Skeptic 2 (2): 74–81. http://www.2think.org/02_2_she.shtml.
- David North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, Mehring Books, 1991. ISBN 0-929087-58-5. Does not define the group as a cult but draws parallels to Scientology and provides a detailed account of Healy's descent into personal authoritarianism.
- Tourish and Wohlforth, "Gerry Healy: Guru to a Star" (Chapter 10), pp. 156-172, in On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000
- "Cults, Sects and the Far Left" reviewed by Bob Pitt, What Next? Template:ISSN No. 17, 2000 online
- (Template:ISO 639 name fr) "Arlette Laguiller n'aime pas le débat". L'Humanité. April 11, 2002. http://www.humanite.presse.fr/journal/2002-04-11/2002-04-11-32049.
- Steven J. Stern (ed.), Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998
- David Scott Palmer, Shining Path of Peru, New York: St. Martin's Press, second ed., 1994
- Gérard Chaliand, Interview in L'Express (Template:ISO 639 name fr)
- Elizabeth Rubin, "The Cult of Rajavi," The New York Times Magazine, July 13, 2003
- Karl Vick, "Iran Dissident Group Labeled a Terrorist Cult," The Washington Post, June 21, 2003
- Max Boot, "How to Handle Iran," Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2006
- John Gorenfeld, "Bad Moon on the Rise," Salon Magazine (web journal), September 24, 2003
- "The crackdown on Falun Gong and other so-called "heretical organizations"". Amnesty International. 2000-03-23. Archived from the original on 2007-08-08. http://web.archive.org/web/20070808052502/http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engASA170112000. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
- "House Measure Calls on China to Stop Persecuting Falun Gong". US Department of State. 2002-07-24. http://usinfo.state.gov/eap/Archive/2004/Jul/01-113787.html. Retrieved 2007-08-16.
- Cyril Le Tallec (2006). "Les sectes politiques: 1965-1995" (in French). http://books.google.fr/books?id=-l1QQOEQKXUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22les+sectes+politiques%22#v=onepage&q=&f=false. Retrieved 28 August 2009.
- Characteristics of a cult checklist
- Tourish and Wohlforth's On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left