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OWeek: Join a cult

James Sherriff gives the low-down on campus cults and where to find them.

Artist's impression of Eastern Avenue during OWeek. Artist's impression of Eastern Avenue during OWeek.

It’s OWeek. You’re walking down Eastern Avenue, ACCESS card in hand. You’re looking to join clubs, any clubs, all the clubs. Look, there’s a club! Cute stalls, members in t-shirts, free food. You get chatting, you take a flyer and—you know, what the heck—why not sign up?

Suddenly, it’s Week 2. You’ve already been to three events for this club. They keep asking you to help out at barbecues, piss-ups, barbecues…. Oh, and they’ve asked you to pledge your undying allegiance to their cause. 

Shit. Have you joined a cult? 

Fear not, Honi’s here to help, with our inaugural guide to identifying cults on campus. Today, we’ll be examining two of the most cultish groups on campus: the Evangelical Union (the EU) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt). 

Let’s start by comparing the EU and SAlt to a known cult—Scientology. Scientology’s current leader is an eccentric multi-millionaire by the name of David Miscavige. Dave pretty much screams ‘cult’. Dave encourages members to participate in expensive courses and buy expensive reading material. The success of this spiritual business model has allowed him to make friends with Tom Cruise, with whom he shares a secret, invented language.

This use of religion, or any shared ideology, to extract value from adherents is a strong indicator that a movement is a cult. There are a few other factors too. Do a small number of senior members control the group? Does the group stress ideological orthodoxy? Is this ideology significantly more radical than that of similar but more mainstream organisations? Scientology fits the bill. But how do SAlt and the EU measure up?

First up, SAlt. To veteran students, the very name inspires images of trestle tables, adorned in red, decorated with anti-capitalist paraphernalia. . To most students, this sight is a simple inconvenience. But for those itching w add the weight of their signature to a SAlty campaign, the temptation is often too great. 

This is where my experience with SAlt began. After signing a petition and having a chat about politics, my girlfriend and I eventually decided to attend the group’s first meeting for the year, despite hearing the mildly concerning assertion that SAlt aims to spark a Trotskyist revolution. 

My first encounter with radical Marxist discourse was at this meeting and it was actually an amicable experience. The atmosphere was inviting: as first-timers, we were encouraged to add our voices to the group’s discussion. But while radical ideas were applauded, our more mainstream perspectives were dismissed. The room quickly became an echo chamber—every attempt to depart from SAlt’s ideology was dismissed as too liberal, too soft, too naïve. That’s cult-level orthodoxy right there.

But there’s more. A 2017 USyd reddit thread titled ‘Can anyone tell me the truth about Socialist Alternative?’ acknowledges that while SAlt’s members are “lovely, sincere people,” new recruits  are “constantly pressured to give time to things that…make a mockery of student activism.” The thread notes that the group’s programme is primarily directed towards recruitment, rather than pragmatic activism. This over-emphasis on recruitment means SAlt is edging further towards being an actual CUlt. 

Certainly, the causes that SAlt supports are admirable; their movement has helped propel social progress on issues like same-sex marriage, refugee rights, and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

What’s more, the existence of radical alternatives to mainstream political thought are essential to our democracy. So while SAlt’s website declares that ‘the system’ cannot be reasoned with and should not be tolerated, they are in fact contributing to its general health and wellbeing. When it comes to politics, a pinch of SAlt is just enough to keep things interesting. 

But unfortunately, SAlt’s willingness to capitalise on new students’ enthusiasm gives cause for alarm. 

New students should be aware that SAlt’s revolutionary capacity rarely extends beyond the meeting room, limited by their proclivity for trestle table-based petitioning. SAlt seem to have embraced the old adage: communism often works better on paper than it does in practice.

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