Robert Jay Lifton (a fuller statement by Editor Lotto is included below)
By David Lotto—The Journal of Psychohistory
Robert Jay Lifton, MD, is and has been for the last 70 years a prolific contributor to psychohistory. He has published at least 27 books, from his first on brainwashing by the communist Chinese in 1961 (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China) to his 2019 book on cults (Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry). Throughout his career, he has combined scholarship with activism focusing on a variety of areas including brainwashing, the Nazi doctors, cults, fundamentalism, the multiple effects of the nuclear age, climate change, the Vietnam war, PTSD, the CIA and mind control, and Donald Trump, among many others. He was one of the founders and then convenor of the Wellfleet Psychohistory group from 1966 through 2005, bringing together many prominent scholars and public intellectuals for discussions of the important events and issues of our time. Lifton left his position as Sterling Professor at Yale to establish the Center on Violence and Human Survival (1986-2002) at John Jay College of the City University of New York. Even in retirement in his 90s, he has continued to speak out and publish, most recently, in defense of democracy.
One of the things I find most remarkable and admirable about Dr. Lifton is how clear and consistent his moral and political stance has remained throughout his work. In the preface of his memoir, Witness to an Extreme Century, published in 2014, he expresses simply and elegantly the basis of his moral and political positions. To quote him:
I’ve been moved by the victimized people I encountered and have spoken out publicly against the forces responsible for their suffering. That identification with survivors of cruel events has in fact been a major source of my social activism. After what I had heard and seen, it became quite natural – indeed urgent – for me to take stands against mind control, nuclear weapons, American war making, and Nazi-like cruelty and genocide (xii).
Robert affirms the principle that if one witnesses cruelty, violence, injustice, or evil being displayed by an individual or group toward others, there should be a moral imperative to speak out, make public, and bear witness to its existence. And perhaps an obligation to do something about it. As he puts it, “I felt that I had gained special knowledge of the impact of these abuses, which could inform my witness, and I was able to make use of my unusual vantage point to become an advocate for peaceful paths to justice and political decency.”
Another aspect of Robert’s moral integrity is the manner in which he has remained faithful to his principles and the politics that follow from them despite pressures and temptations to do otherwise. He has had offers to collaborate with those in power. In 1962 he was approached by either the CIA or military intelligence with an offer to aid them by using his knowledge about thought reform and brainwashing techniques, which he declined.
A major thread throughout his work has been his engagement with what he names as totalism: an all-encompassing system of beliefs involving a passionate attachment to an ideology along with the desire to battle against ideas or people seen as not sharing in the belief system. As he says concerning the centrality of this engagement: “My thought reform study [his first major research project] became a leitmotif for all of my work. Everything I’ve done since connects somehow with totalism and mind manipulation, and all too frequently with expressions of apocalypticism.”
The five major events that he has studied—Chinese thought reform, the effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, the behavior of Nazi doctors, and his study of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo—all follow this leitmotif. For Maoist China, the goal was to transform the individual by means of mind control, breaking down previous beliefs and loyalties, instilling in their place loyalty to the idealized leader Mao and the belief system of his version of communism. With Hiroshima and atomic weapons, Lifton sees the powerful belief system of what he calls “nuclearism,” the worshipful attitude toward the bomb paired with the magical belief that its power will save us, as crucial to understanding our relationship to nuclear weapons.
Nazi ideology, in addition to creating the Holocaust, was powerful enough to convert physicians from healers to killers. In Vietnam, the totalistic fanaticism of our cold warrior leadership led us into the “atrocity producing situations” of that war. In addition to the Vietnam War, this cold war ideology has also given us the excesses of McCarthyism, CIA ventures into developing techniques of mind control, and fueled the creation of a massive nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, along with other fundamentalist groups that share a wish for the arrival of an apocalypse clearing the way for a utopian paradise, are examples of totalistic world views that make use of manipulating and controlling the minds of their members.
Opposition to the oppressiveness of totalistic ideology and the harm that can follow from a commitment to it has always informed Robert’s thinking about totalism. His concept of proteanism describes a way of relating to the world that is in opposition to totalistic fundamentalism.
In 1966, Robert, along with Erik Erikson, Kenneth Keniston, Bruce Mazlish, and Philip Rieff, started the Wellfleet Psychohistory Group. Robert convened and graciously hosted the yearly meetings of this growing group at his home in the dunes of the Cape for 50 years, ending in 2015. Robert invited me to attend in 2006, and I had the privilege of participating for 10 years. I will be forever grateful to Robert for giving me the opportunity to experience these wonderful gatherings. Here is a partial list of the people who attended regularly semi-regularly, or who made cameo appearances, starting with regulars:
Peter Balakian, Mary Catherine Bateson, Norman Birnbaum, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Cathy Caruth, Jim Carroll, Wendy Doniger, Daniel Ellsberg, Kai Erikson, Michael Flynn, Larry Friedman, Carol Gilligan, Jim Gilligan, Todd Gitlin, Judith Herman, Robert Holt, Nicholas Humphrey, Jim Jones, Peter Kuznik, Betty Jean Lifton, Norman Mailer, Karl Meyer, Michael Miller, Dan Okrent, Charles Strozier, and Bessel Van Der Kolk.
Guest participants included Dan Berrigan, Peter Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Robert Coles, Harvey Cox, David Dellinger, Richard Falk, Jane Fonda, Peter Gay, Richard Goodwin, Raoul Hilberg, Michael Kazin, Robert Kuttner, Lynn Layton, Jill Lepore, Frank Manuel, Alexander and Margaret Mitscherlich, Naomi Oreskes, Kenneth Porter, Philip Rieff, David Riesman, Jonathan Schell, Richard Sennett, Martin Sherwin, Sherry Turkle, Lawrence Wright, and Howard Zinn.
Robert’s scholarship includes at least 27 books along with numerous papers and articles as well as his numerous acts of political activism. He has taken on the mantle of being a public intellectual, seeking for us to join him in bearing witness to the suffering caused by the numerous trauma producing events that we have all lived through. In this way, he engages with the essence of the psychohistorical project of understanding the psychological motivation that drives so much of our behavior.