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Thought, Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China [Paperback]

Robert Jay Lifton
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

31 July 1989
Informed by Erik Erikson's concept of the formation of ego identity, this book, which first appreared in 1961, is an analysis of the experiences of fifteen Chinese citizens and twenty-five Westerners who underwent "brainwashing" by the Communist Chinese government. Robert Lifton constructs these case histories through personal interviews and outlines a thematic pattern of death and rebirth, accompanied by feelings of guilt, that characterizes the process of "thought reform." In a new preface, Lifton addresses the implications of his model for the study of American religious cults.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 510 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; Reprint edition (31 July 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807842532
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807842539
  • Product Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 908,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
When confronted with the endless discussion on the general subject of "brainwashing," I am sometimes reminded of the Zen Buddhist maxim: "The more we talk about it, the less we understand it." Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Lifton's work here is an excellent effort to understand the ideological manipulation of the Chinese Communists.
Although the researches on those individual "victims" are thorough, however, these are only other facets of the polyhedron of the "brainwashing".
Surprisingly unknown to the Western world, but there is the salient fact of very successful cases of "brainwashing" in China and Japan which had, and still has, a devastating effect in terms of the issues of post war compensation between China and Japan.
One case that represents the "brainwashing" against the Manchus is of their Last Emperor, Pu-Yi. You can read and see some glimpses of his experience of the "thought reform" in books such as "From Emperor to Citizen", his Communist authorised autobiography, and in the film "The Last Emperor", so I leave it to your option.
Another is a completely untold (to the Westerners) story of former Japanese Imperial Army soldiers.
The followings are excerpts of the accounts of two Chinese officials, one of them worked for Mao Tse-tung as an interpreter for 18 years. They appear in a special feature issue of the Japanese left-wing magazine called "Sekai" (May, 1998), on the confession papers of soldiers mentioned above, that "found" in China by a Japanese photo-journalist, who also interviewed the two Chinese officials.
In July 1950, by the direct order from Stalin, 969 Japanese soldiers were transferred from Siberia, where those soldiers had been kept for slave labour suffering from starvation and despair for 6 years after war ended, to Fushun (Fuxuan) War Criminal Camp, in China, where, by the way, Pu-Yi was also transferred to at the same period.
At this point, the soldiers' mental health had already been deteriorating.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
61 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Seminal Work on Mind Control. 30 July 1999
By A Customer - Published on
This book may date from 1961, but it continues to be an essential work for understanding the techniques of mind control that continue to be utilized by authoritarian governments as well as by destructive cults. Those who have been watching with horror the crackdown by the Communist Chinese government on the peaceful falun gong religious sect will recognize in Lifton's book the same tyrannical mindset as it operated at its origins. Obviously, not much has changed in 40 years. Especially worthwhile in this book is the description of the eight conditions underlying any thought reform program. "Milieu control", for example, is the imposition of an entire controlling environment that permits a person no unapproved interactions, no free time, and no access to unapproved information. "Doctrine over person" is a state of affairs where, in any situation where ideology is contradicted by real experience, the ideology, not the experience, is believed. This can lead to a situation where a fictitious construct -- "the People" -- is defined differently from that of real people, who are not considered to be "real" people if their experience differs from ideology. Lifton calls this viewpoint "dispensing of existence." Cult survivors such as myself (a former 10-year member of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church) will recognize these and the other conditions Lifton enumerates.
67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refutation of Prior Review - This Is An Excellent Book 29 May 2000
By Nicolas P. DiCiaccio - Published on
Upon seeing the review below, from the reader in Rio de Janeiro, I had to write my own thoughts and share them. As a former cult member myself and current volunteer in anti-cult activism, I can personally attest that what Dr. Lifton wrote about concerning destructive groups and mind control absolutely exists. The famous chapter 22, where Dr. Lifton lays out the famous "eight criteria", to me isn't a chapter in a book but how my adolescense was in this particular group. It's true; it exists. The reader from Rio said that mind control was a failure; well, ultimately, yes it is, total control over a person's mind isn't 100%, and won't last forever. However, individuals and destructive groups (cults) know how to exploit mind control techniques to allow them control over a person's thoughts and actions long enough to get that person to do what they want, and often when people leave cults they suffer psychological damages for years afterward. This is also not about West superior over East; Dr. Lifton also chronicled how many Chinese were hurt by the mind control imposed by the Communists. All in all, this is a terrific book about mind control and its damaging effects; I highly recommend it.
36 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important book 6 Jun 2000
By A Customer - Published on
This book has created a lot of controversies envolving new religious movements. Although it describes a research made with POWs e somes Chinese intellectuals, it has been frequently used attacks against some new religious movements.
The concept "brainwashing" first came into public use during the Korean War in the 1950s as an explanation for why a few American GIs defected to the Communists. The two most authoritative studies of the Korean War defections (and this book was one of them) concluded that "brainwashing" was an inappropriate concept to account for this renunciation of U.S. citizenship. When several new religious came into high profile during the youth counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s the concept "brainwashing" was again employed as a culturally acceptable explanation to account for the fact that some idealistic "flower children" came under the influence of "cult" leaders. A quarter-of-a-century of scholarly research on why people join new religions has come to essentially the same conclusion as the Korean War studies -- "brainwashing" is not a viable concept to describe the dynamics of affiliation with new religions. Defenders of "brainwashing" have used other concepts like "mind control" and "thought reform," but they have failed to produce a scholarly literature to support their claims. Thus, whatever euphemisms may be employed, the basic conclusion against the brainwashing thesis is not altered. Still, the mass media continues to report claims of "brainwashing" as if the alleged phenomenon were real. And, as a result, the concept "brainwashing" sustains considerable currency in popular culture. It is, to be sure, a powerful metaphor. "Brainwashing" communicates disapproval of influence by persons, or groups, the user of the term considers to be illegitimate. If you want to understand the origins of the concept, read Lifton's work. Just take care to not get caught by the "cult mind control" rhetoric.
33 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Totalism and Psychotherapy 25 Jan 2002
By Kelly Graham - Published on
Lifton provides content and commentary regarding attempts by the People's Republic of China to 're-educate' Westerners and citizens according to Communist ideology. Actual contents of his one-on-one interviews are particularly useful, as are Lifton's evaluations of the effects and causes of 're-education'.
Lifton's principal shortcoming is the overarching psychotherapeutic interpretations, which sometimes stretch the imagination.
Lifton's book is often misunderstood and misrepresented as a polemic against 'brainwashing' and religious 'cultism'. 'Brainwashing' usually means the hypnotic manipulation of one's thoughts forcing someone to change their beliefs counter to their awareness or conscious will; Lifton denies emphatically that this happened in China or that it can happen. It appears that many who cite his work (and some of the reviewers here) have never read the book, other than through excerpts and summaries.
Lifton himself admits that 'brainwashing' is a misnomer; he denies that 're-education' was effective or that it converted people against their will. Furthermore, he argues that the principal difference between Chinese methods of thought-reform and normal, usual persuasion is the Chinese use of physical violence and imprisonment.
Lifton never intended for his book to be used by the anti-cult industry to attack religious non-orthodoxy and constitutionally guaranteed religious expression.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE Definitive Work on this Subject so Relevant Today 8 Mar 2014
By Renée - Published on
Lifton relates his fine research of mostly Westerners caught up in Maoist China's thought reform camps of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He draws sweeping, insightful, brilliant conclusions. It is a book relevant to today's world of religious cults (JWs, LDS, Moonies, etc.), economic cults (some pryamid schemes and door-to-door magazine sales) and political cults (USSR, China, and most notably today, North Korea).

Originally published in 1961, the 1989 edition by The University of North Carolina Press is the best bang for the buck because it contains a brilliant new preface by Lifton explaining its relvance to today, even 2014.

While other texts are excellent treatises on the subject of mind control, such as Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan, Lifton's book lays the foundation for understanding not the genesis of thought reform, but its most wide scale, governmental use.

The potential purchaser does need to be aware that this is a dense, academic text, but well worth the read. You will not be disappointed.
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