This book is a psychological study of thought reform techniques from Communist China. Lifton conducted extensive interviews with forty people in Hong Kong shortly after their release from prisons (in the case of Westerners) or "revolutionary universities" (in the case of native Chinese) in Communist China in 1954-55. He also did follow-up interviews and surveys with many of the subjects in 1958.
The book makes for fascinating (though sometimes tedious) reading as he discusses individuals he interviewed. He describes in great detail the methods used to indoctrinate Westerners and native Chinese.
Lifton tells us that the term "brainwashing" was first used by an American Journalist, Edward Hunter, as a translation of the Chinese colloquialism hsi nao, which literally means "wash brain." This was the term used by Chinese informants, apparently in the early 1950's, as knowledge about prison life after the Chinese Communist revolution became apparent.
Lifton himself denounces "promiscuous" uses of the term in advertising, education, training and the like. He also cautions against the notion of "an all-powerful, irresistible, unfathomable and magical method of achieving total control over the human mind;" in his analysis such a method does not exist.
Lifton offers this brief statement and a list of questions he sought to address with his research as the place to start in understanding this concept:
Whatever its setting, thought reform consists of two basic elements: confession, the exposure and renunciation or past and present "evil"; and re-education, the remaking of a man in the Communist image. These elements are closely related and overlapping, since they both bring into play a series of pressures and appeals-- intellectual, emotional, and physical-- aimed at social control and individual change. ..
Still the vital questions continue to be asked: Can a man be made to change his beliefs? If a change does occur, how long will it last? How do Chinese Communists obtain these strange confessions? Do people believe their own confessions, even when false? How successful is thought reform? Do Westerners and Chinese react differently to it? Is there any defense against it? Is it related to psychotherapy? to religious conversion? Have the Chinese discovered new and obscure techniques? What has all this to do with Soviet Russia and international Communism? with Chinese culture? How is it related to other mass movements or inquisitions, religious or political? What are the implications for education? For psychiatric and psychoanalytic training and practice? For religion? How can we recognize parallels to thought reform within our own culture, and what can we do about them? (pp. 5-6).
Thus, "brainwashing" or "thought reform" is the notion of making someone change his beliefs, especially against his will and without his consent. He distinguishes between education and other forms of consensual influence, yet recognizes the possibility of a blurry line of distinction between some education processes and Chinese thought reform.
Lifton offers an analysis of the process, breaking it down into various stages, with analysis and insight. What I found most significant about this process was what Lifton calls "the assault on identity," the establishment of guilt and manipulations based upon that guilt. As Lifton says in his discussion of "Logical Dishonoring:
It was no longer enough to admit guilt, to feel guilty, or even to recognize specific guilty actions. The prisoner had to extend self-condemnation to every aspect of his being, and learn to see his life as a series of shameful and evil acts-- shameful and evil not only in the possible opposition to Communism, but also because they violated his own cherished ideals....
At this point, the prisoner faces the most dangerous part of thought reform. He experiences guilt and shame much more profound and much more threatening to his inner integrity than and experienced in relation to previous psychological steps. He is confronted with his human limitations, with the contrast between what he is and what he would be. His emotion may be called true or genuine guilt, or true shame-- or existential guilt-- to distinguish it from the less profound and more synthetic forms of inner experience. He undergoes a self-exposure which is on the border of guilt and shame. Under attack is the deepest meaning of his entire life, the morality of his relationship to mankind. The one-sided exploitation of existential guilt is thought reform's trump card, and perhaps its most important source of emotional influence over its participants. Revolving around it are issues most decisive to thought reform's outcome (pp. 77-78, emphasis added).
The practice of emphasizing one's imperfections and turning them into a cause for extreme shame and rejection should set off alarms. And particularly so when those imperfections are arbitrary or political in nature. Are those doing the shaming free of imperfections? Hardly. No, this is not about recognizing imperfections and trying to be better; this is about power and domination over the subject. And this practice continues to this day in abusive churches, not to mention other social settings.
While thought reform had significant short-term benefits in terms of behavior for those still within the thought reform system, it had limitations in terms of long-term impact. Only one of the twenty-five Western subjects of Lifton's research was regarded as a "true convert" over the long term:
What can be said about the long-range success or failure of prison thought reform as applied to Westerners? From the standpoint of winning them over to a Communist view of the world, the program must certainly be judged a failure. Only one (Fr. Simon) among my twenty-five subjects (and only one or possibly two more from among the scores of others I heard about) could be regarded as a truly successful convert...
Whatever success thought reform had with most of the Westerners lay in the unconscious influences which they retained from it...
Western subjects consistently reported a sense of having been benefited and emotionally strengthened, of having become more sensitive to their own and others' inner feelings, and more flexible and confident in human relationships (p. 236-238, emphasis added).
Regarding the success of the thought reform program upon native Chinese, Lifton makes the following assessments:
I was led to the conclusion that thought reform, at least during its early phase, had been much more successful with Chinese than with Westerners-- largely because of the immense appeal of nationalism, the reinforcement of thought reform by the Chinese Communist government, the sense of belonging to a group within one's own society, as well as many of the other historical and cultural influences already mentioned (p. 400).
I am aware that I have presented versions of thought reform's limitations and accomplishments, which seem almost contradictory. I have done this intentionally, because these opposing effects can and do co-exist, sometimes even within the same person. A true picture of the program's impact can only be obtained by visualizing within the emotional life of individual Chinese intellectuals a fluctuating complex of genuine enthusiasm, neutral compliance, passive withdrawal, and hostility of suffocation-- along with a tendency to accept much that is unpleasant because it seems to be a necessary part of the greater program, or the only way to get things done. (p. 414)
To Lifton, the success of thought reform upon native Chinese had more to do with their own willingness to participate, the "lack of options" (a nice way to say being forced to do so under duress) and the exploitation of nationalism than the thought reform techniques themselves.
Clearly, thought reform exists and accomplishes certain short-term effects, but despite all of the attention and mystery around forced "brainwashing" and thought reform, Lifton proves that it really doesn't work at creating long-term ideological conversion.
For the reader interested in seeing details of research and mechanisms of thought reform in more detail, this book is a one-of-a-kind resource.