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Long Division

ISSUE:  Spring 2021


There’s an old joke: Put two Marxists in a room, and soon you’ll have a three-way ideological split. Marxists are notoriously fractious, true, but humans of every stripe constantly assert distinctions to separate themselves from others. This is especially true in circles where purity of doctrine, usually religious or political, is at issue.

One Marxist might claim to belong to a tendency. The other might say that the first Marxist belongs to a sect—or worse, a cult, or worse still, a clique. Martin Marty, the eminent historian of Protestantism, distinguishes sect from cult on one axis. Both are nonconformist, he holds, but a sect is negative, defining itself by what it is not—we are not orthodox Presbyterians; we are not against abortion—while a cult might define itself in positive terms—we are ardent followers of, say, a certain guru or recently departed president. “Negatively oriented sects gain their current attractiveness from…isolating people from competing value systems,” Marty continues, while cults and their charismatic leaders “succeed to the extent that they provide surrogates for interpersonal relations or attachment to significant persons in an apparently depersonalizing society.”

Cults can form around things instead of people, as with the cargo cults of Melanesia, famous subjects of anthropological study. Cliques are most certainly anthropocentric. If cults are usually keen to recruit new members, cliques number only a few individuals and are closed to outsiders. Think of the table of ultrapopular kids in your high-school cafeteria, the ones who sneered at the rest. That’s a clique. Or think of Mao Zedong’s widow Jiang Qing and three other members of the Communist Party’s elite, denounced in 1976 as a clique until being branded with a more memorable moniker, “the Gang of Four.”

If a gang can be loosely defined as a cult that’s a little harder to join and leave than most, it’s possible to belong to one and a party—a term now reserved for politics, whose root is the same as that for partition—at the same time.

Though contemporary scholars shy away from the term because of its connotation of primitiveness, a tribe might be thought of as a kind of super-sect made up of people related by blood, marriage, and cultural identity who form a community bound by mostly unstated rules—we don’t eat fish; we don’t talk to those people across the valley. A nation embraces such communities—and sects, cults, parties, cliques, gangs, and other polities. It is what the political philosopher Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community,” one that hinges on an idea: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” We are Americans because we imagine that accidents of birth make us somehow different from Canadians and Mexicans. We are a nation because we believe we’re different enough from everyone else that we’re willing to set aside our internal differences and die to preserve what we imagine is ours. 


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