Right: Aravindan "Comrade Bala" Balakrishnan, Maoist sect leader, suspected slave master and self-proclaimed Christ. Image from ITV.
In Brixton, the memories of a nearly unrecognisable radical era have been shaken up, as bizarre details continue to emerge from the case of three women rescued from suspected slavery by cops and charity workers last week. An Irish woman, a Malaysian woman and a 30-year-old British woman, believed to have spent her whole life in servitude to a self-proclaimed messiah, are at the centre of a mystery that has its roots in a culture we’ve all but forgotten.
Journalists have found themselves poring over the publications of obscure revolutionary groups, trying to tell the difference between the Communist Party of Britain, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Great Britain Marxist-Leninist. Hidden inside weighty bulletins on dialectical materialism lie the clues to what happened in Brixton in the early 80s that led to at least three women losing their freedom for decades.
While Brixton feigns radicalism now – with protests against cheese shops staged by middle-class kids who don’t recognise themselves as the first wave of gentrification – in the 70s and 80s it was the real deal. On Villa Road, just one street over from the Peckford Place apartment the three women were rescued from, anarchists, Trotskyists and revolutionary communists lived in large squatted communal houses with artists, hippies and screaming primal therapy nutters. At 121 Railton Road, anarchists ran a large squatted autonomous centre and nearby were communes run by black nationalists and feminist collectives.
Among this festival of dissent, one isolated group – the Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought – were considered “beyond the beyond”. Led by a guy named Aravindan Balakrishnan, who had taken to calling himself "Comrade Bala", the group ran a Maoist commune at the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre at 140 Acre Lane. Like all good communist micro-groups, they were formed as a split from another communist micro-group: the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) in 1974. (The "Marxist-Leninist" part was considered vital by these groups, as they sought to make clear they took their party line from China, not the USSR.)
Unlike other micro-groups operating at the time – which, viewed 30 years down the line, might all look a bit bonkers – the Institute was considered an insane cult even from its inception. A 300-page thesis on the bizarre machinations of the group was written by the academic Steve Rayner, who surmised: “There was an internal egalitarianism and absorption into the life of the commune that prevented any intellectual growth or challenge to the status quo of commune life. Bala was the dominant personality and leading comrade.” Clearly, these sound like the workings of a cult. Bala preyed on the vulnerable; chief upon his hitlist of new recruits were women and foreign students who were having trouble settling in London.
Though Bala was already in his late thirties when he launched the Institute, he had spent most of his life involved in revolutionary communist organisations – in 1977, the government of Singapore even revoked his citizenship after hearing of his activities in the UK. Bitter over his explusion from the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), his new group refused to engage with other communist parties and had a core of full-time revolutionaries living communally at the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre, financed by the earnings of the other seven members. They held a strong millenarianist line that London was the “worst place in the world” but believed that they must wait there for China’s Red Army to come and liberate their “red base”. At their inception, they believed this would happen within a year – but whatever revolution they thought was just around the corner never came.
The group had a violent reputation. Those who were around at the time recall their attacks on their sworn enemies in the CPE (M-L). Though the CPE (M-L) never achieved any kind of notoriety, the Institute were obsessed with their former comrades, and hilariously and repeatedly branded their leaders "the Gang of Four" after Mao’s most famous political opponents (the wife and three Communist officials who apparently tried to overthrow him and seize power in China).
The John Buckle Centre in South London, the HQ of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)
So just who were Bala's hated nemeses? The CPE (M-L) was led by an Indian revolutionary named Hardial Bains, who'd previously attempted to launch Maoist groups in Dublin and London. They actually still maintain an office in South London, rebranded as the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and run from the John Buckle Centre on Wandsworth Road. Despite my frequent attempts to get inside to speak to them, they seem to be shy about sharing the revolutionary message at the moment – perhaps not surprising, given the on-going investigation into slavery allegations.
In the cab office next door, a kaffiyah-wearing Somali driver told me he pops in regularly to speak with the group's leader, Michael Chant. Through the window I could see a Marxist calendar and some low couches – the light was on in the back room but nobody would answer the door. The group rejected Mao in the 80s and fell in behind the Albanian tyrant Enver Hoxha, who loved the death penalty but hated beards, to the extent that he banned them from the country. The group are also fond of North Korea, helping to run the Society for Friendship with Korea and hosting speakers from the North Korean embassy. Up north, the party has even run for parliament, fronting up Unison trade union rep Roger Nettleship in the 2010 elections. Nettleship didn't win.
Michael Chant has said this of Comrade Bala: "Any media attempts to connect his rotten activities with Marxism-Leninism, for purposes of presenting Marxism-Leninism as cultism and extremism, are pure disinformation and sensationalism. Such attempts in no way assist to show what Marxism-Leninism is and we do not think they deserve an answer."
If the left is to clean the dinosuars out of its closet then an eye should next be cast on the US Maoist Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. He too went on the run in the early 80s, after some minor scuffles with the police – fleeing to France and then staying in "exile" despite the charges being dropped soon after. Avakian stands accused of running a Scientology-style revolutionary group – members have travelled to Burning Man to erect glowing images of the leader's face as part of their policy of "Appreciation, Promotion and Popularisation". Avakian's self-promotion, over that of their usual poster boys Lenin and Mao, has raised the eyebrows of comrades in places like Nepal. But that didn't stop Chuck D signing a petition supporting Avakian's right to live unhassled by the US government (even if they don't currently seem to be doing a great deal of hassling).
The RCPB (M-L)'s office sits just eight minutes from the building where the "slaves" were rescued from in Peckford Place, which is now under 24-hour police protection. It is one of the final relics of the revolutionary fervour that swept through London at the time. Before last week's events in Brixton, Bala had been off the political and public map for over 30 years. You wonder how much his former foes would ruminate on what became of him and his pals in the Institute during that time.
Click to enlarge this map of the UK's confusing and self-defeating communist history. Via
The events building up to Bala's disappearance from the political radar are well documented in the Institute’s paper – the South London Workers' Bulletin. Institute members were in and out of prison throughout the late 70s; the group’s documents claim that a 200-strong police raid in 1978 shut down their HQ and saw 14 members arrested. Comrade Chandra, the leader’s wife, nearly lost her eye in the violent confrontation with the “fascist police”. Court reports from the time suggest that the arrested members refused to recognise the “British fascist” court. One comrade who was active at the time remembers a rumour going around that, “At the height of their public activity... Balakrishnan had been arrested trying to break into government offices in Whitehall.”
Rob Griffiths, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, who still publish the daily socialist newspaper the Morning Star, told me that the Maoists led by Bala were fringe even by communist standards. “I was aware of the group and their bookshop in Brixton, they were totally isolated and had nothing to do with the established communist groups of the time.”
It was after one of his stints in prison that Comrade Bala led a purge inside the organisation, driving out the men who had filled in as leader during his absence. With his wife Chandra by his side, he was now the patriarch of a group that insisted in its bulletin; “The comrades leading our squads are all women comrades. This has great strategic significance because the NEW WORLD can only get built with NEW WOMEN... women comrades must consciously defeat inferiority complex or the queen bee complex.”
The direction the group was taking was clear to many who were paying attention; it was a cult, awaiting the day of salvation and slowly cutting itself off from the rest of the world. People would seek out their literature at the pub so that they could laugh at statements like: “Beloved Chairman Mao will live forever!" and "Death to the two superpowers!" and "Death to the British fascist state!" Finally, in 1980, they went underground, ceasing activity in the communist left. People began to forget about them. What happened between then and now is mostly a mystery, though there was an unusual death at an address linked to the group in 1997 – when a woman named Sian Davies fell out of a window. When a TV journalist knocked at the door to investigate, a woman with an Irish name answered and told him to "fuck off" before they called the “fascist police”.
If it turns out Bala did enslave the women found at the address in Brixton last week, the police have stated that it most likely involved the use of brainwashing and “invisible handcuffs”. The case “does not compare to any previous investigations we have carried out”, they said. Many who were around in Brixton at that furtive revolutionary point in the early 80s are reluctant to be named, which is perhaps unsurprising given that some of them were flirting with Carlos the Jackal-style politics. After the Berlin Wall fell, many of those closest to the action simply got on with their lives, bringing an end to their revolutionary dreams. Now, news teams with satellite trucks pull up outside former communes for broadcasts and tabloids rummage in university archives for Maoist tracts, as Comrades Bala and Chandra remain in hiding, under the watchful eye of the “fascist police” they have spent so long trying to avoid.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
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