By David Hoggard
On the fourth of May, 1969, a spellbinding hermit named Mario Luis Rodríguez Cobos welcomed two hundred people to the desolate flanks of a mountain high in the Argentinean Andes – the only place the authorities would let him hold his meeting. Some pilgrims hoped to be healed of ailments, others to score some weed, others still to find some sort of meaning that they felt the self-indulgent Epicureanism of the hippy ideal couldn’t provide for them. What they received was a sermon, shorter than this article, which mainly consisted of a parable about a traveller driving a cart called Desire, pulled by a horse called Necessity. Oh, and a load of New Age mysticism about a ‘Force’ which could be harnessed by the adept. The date was very appropriate.
Forty years later, the followers of Rodríguez staged a World March for Peace and Nonviolence, starting on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, traversing a hundred countries, and ending up three months later on that same mountaintop, which was now home to a tall, stainless-steel, commemorative monolith. The March was endorsed by such varied luminaries as Ravi Shankar, Jimmy Carter, Viggo Mortensen and Helen Clark, and marchers held banners depicting Rodriguez between Martin Luther King and Gandhi – three symbols of non-violent Humanism.
Rodríguez – known to all as ‘Silo’, the name he was given by a guru in Naples – did not set out to start a political movement. The message of his sermon, ‘The Healing of Suffering’, was that Desire drives the human heart to conflict, which manifests itself not only in physical violence, but also economic violence (that is, Capitalist exploitation) and racial and religious violence (discrimination). The solution to this is to encourage all humans to reject Desire and instead meditate on self-actualisation and egalitarianism. The new Siloists marked themselves out from their post-materialist hippy brethren by wearing black clothes and cropping their hair short.
Naturally, all this sanctimony gathered opposition from vested interests in South America. Catholics decried the movement as an atheistic, Marxist cult bent on corrupting young minds, while real Marxists pointed to the bourgeois origins of most of the leaders and denounced them as Fascists. In point of fact, one senior ally of Silo was Bruno von Ehrenberg, a former member of the Chilean Nazi Party who had lost an arm in mysterious circumstances, but he was apparently a reformed character and, in any case, fell out with Silo at some later point. In the meantime, the Siloists (known then as Youth Power, later as ‘The Community’) set out to attempt to prove the Catholic Conservative fearmongers right.
Members of Youth Power had to attend one meeting every week and a weekend retreat every month, and as they mainly appealed to teenagers wanting to rebel against conservative parents (one of the Siloist themes was a generational conflict akin to Marxist class conflict, which was a very 1969 idea), they tended to run away dramatically in order to attend the retreats. The parents became understandably upset and the press whipped up moral panic by hypothesising about the drug-fuelled Satanic orgies they were getting up to. The height of this panic came when the niece of a newspaper proprietor ran away to a Siloist camp and her father flew up to fetch her in a police helicopter. Silo and others were arrested for kidnapping and worse, but no parents ever pressed charges and they were released within a fortnight.
This brush with the law seems to have made Youth Power more secretive and more political. When the Allende regime (which had been behind a lot of the attacks on the Chilean wing of the group) fell, Siloists joined Pinochet’s thugs in dealing out beatings to trade unionists – but it did them no good. The group was banned by the new regime and the adherents scattered to the four winds, carrying Silo’s teachings with them. They met up again in Corfu in 1975, where they decided to turn ‘The Community’ into an activist organisation called ‘The Movement’. This was where the real politics came in.
Silo’s early writings were mainly New Age utopianism, but he later hit on a Humanist ideology that could be summed up in the aphorism “Nothing above the human being, no human being below another”. Humanists were called to believe in equality, peace, non-violence, diversity, and freedom of belief. Silo summed up his manifesto in his ‘Letters to My Friends’ in the early 90s, which was partly philosophical waffle, partly self-help patter, and part genuine manifesto – if you could find the politics in amongst the rest. Big Capital, neoliberalism and globalisation were bad, Socialism was stupid because of the Soviet Union, and the ideal was of co-operative ownership of the means of production, with a direct democracy devolved to the neighbourhood level and – implicitly – guided by a sort of Vanguard Party of people who had meditated on Silo’s revelations.
The Movement spread to wherever Siloist exiles from South America ended up, and turned into a genuine cult. They set up front organisations (usually neighbourhood-focused, in deference to Humanist ideology) to lure disaffected youths into their ambits. This luring often took the form of flirtatious encouragement by recruiters of the opposite sex, feeding into a feeling of sexual exploitation and defilement by those attracted in such a fashion. One ex-Siloist in Canada details an honest-to-goodness love dodecahedron between the senior local members – whether this is true or not, it feeds into the original Catholic belief that something dodgy was going on.
The recruiters subjected new adherents to lots of make-work tasks for the front organisation, discouraging contact with non-Movement friends and family. This would culminate in a series of six-hour psychodrama sessions which would break down all individual thought within those who made it to the end of the process. When they did, they would be greeted as Team Delegates and told to recruit ten more Team Delegates to reach the rank of Group Delegate, and so on up the chain. This required almost constant work, so the Delegates would give up every aspect of their lives outside the Movement and take it from there.
Team Delegates were categorised as ‘adherent members’ of the Movement, while Group Delegates were ‘full members’ who could allegedly guide the direction of said Movement. All members paid a six-monthly membership fee equivalent to one days’ worth of the average wage – which was quite cheap, considering. Many theories have been proffered to explain where all the money came from: the most convincing hypothesis is that the CIA were up to their usual tricks, but it’s also worth noting that most Siloists had independent means. Silo himself was the son of the man who ran Argentina’s state-run wine industry.
The Movement had several semi-independent arms, including: the original Community; another campaign called the ‘Convergence of Cultures’ which aimed to shape a new human race by breeding all ethnicities with one another until racism ended because nobody could tell each other apart; and, from 1984, the Humanist Party. This was where the Siloists became fully political, although the Party also performed a useful function in terms of attracting disaffected young people who could then be subjected to the brainwashing process.
Humanist Parties organised all over the world. The Icelandic branch got 1.6% in the 1987 general election, while the Spanish Humanists were a founder member of the United Left electoral alliance, until they were ejected two months later when the Communist Party realised what they were dealing with. The Spaniards’ next trick brings us to one of the less appealing parts of the Humanist story.
You see, Silo had ecologist instincts, but he was staunchly opposed to the Green Parties that were starting up in the 80s. To South American audiences, he would play up the idea that they were a tool of ideological colonialism by Europeans, while to more general audiences, he would argue that they were traitors to the human race. Their environmentalism was based on a ‘biocentric’ view in which humans were blamed for the deaths of whales and seals and so forth, whereas the Siloist dogma was that humans were a superior race whose needs Nature was ordained to serve. Humans must use Nature sustainably, but Silo described those who put Nature above or equal to Humans as “traitors” and “Nazis”.
He also disliked secular Humanists, described by Silo as “theocentric” in their focus on whether or not God exists. Silo is fine with his followers having religious belief, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the doctrine of ‘nothing above humans’.
So, anyway, Humanist Parties started calling themselves ‘Green Future’ or ‘Ecologist Greens’ or other monikers meant to confuse voters and prevent Greens from being elected. In the 1989 European elections in Spain, the Humanists ran as ‘Ecologist Greens’ – if their 162,000 votes had gone to the legitimate Greens instead, they’d have won their first European Parliament seat. Likewise, the New York branch of the Movement created a front called ‘Brooklyn Greens’ and put out newsletters about recycling and how fun it would be to join the Movement – sorry, the movement.
The other branch in the USA was in San Francisco, and when the Californian Green Party failed to maintain their registration with the relevant authorities, the Siloists jumped at the chance, stole their name whole-cloth and won 40,000 votes in a School Board election before the Greens were able to get the word out.
A similar story occurred with their British section. Two branches were formed – one, in Manchester, was headed up by Steven Knight and put out a community newsletter in Withington; the other, in Ealing, was organised by Dominic Allen and Jon Swinden. Both subjected teenaged recruits to psychodramas and promises of self-actualisation through working aescetically for the cause. Both attracted complaints from the parents of said recruits. And both stood in elections as ‘The Greens’.
Knight and Swinden stood in the European elections of 1989, for the Greater Manchester Central and London Central constituencies respectively, while Allen stood in the simultaneous Vauxhall by-election. None of them reached the heady heights of 1% of the vote, and the actual Green Party did well in both the European elections and the by-election (the first Westminster election in which they saved a deposit). However, the Greens got quite angry with The Greens for their skulduggery, and even sent one of their leaders, Sara Parkin, to one of their meetings to see if they really were as bad as they were made out to be. She described their ideology as “confused”.
Nevertheless, the Humanists have continued to spread their influence, although they no longer call themselves Greens. Their fronts spread all over the world, although the co-ordinating Movement supposedly no longer exists. They have participated in global peace marches and the uprising against the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and they’ve done social work in slums and provided remote Indian villages with Internet access. Most bizarrely, Silo struck up a friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 1990s: Gorbachev arranged for Silo to be given an honorary degree, and later recommended his books in a Foreword to a Siloist tract by the Italian chemist and fantasy novelist, Salvatore Pudella.
Most incredibly of all, though, Humanist Parties have achieved legislative representation. Lía Méndez was elected to the Buenos Aires City Legislature for a single term in 2000, and was also the first Argentinean woman to run for President. Over in Chile, Laura Rodríguez sought to achieve the same feat in 1989, but was informed that as she wasn’t yet 40, she wasn’t eligible. The Chilean Humanist Party was one of the first to openly organise in the final years of the Pinochet regime, and participated in the pro-Democracy alliance – as part of which, Laura Rodríguez was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1989, but died of cancer before her term was up. President Evo Morales of Bolivia has also described himself as a Humanist and collaborated with the Movement.
The respect accorded to Humanists in Chile garnered them some political appointments. For instance, Tomás Hirsch was made Ambassador to New Zealand in 1990, where he set up a branch of the Movement – but not the Party, as he was of course forbidden to make political interventions in his host country. Later, Hirsch won 5.4% of the vote in the 2005 Presidential election, and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies alongside two other Humanists as part of the left-wing Broad Front in 2017. One Humanist Deputy is an investigative journalist and author of ‘The Sexual Fantasies of Chilean Women’, while the other looks like this:
Could Humanism surpass even these heights of electoral success? Perhaps if they’d been less cultish, their inherently appealing post-materialist philosophy might have found fertile soil in places where the Greens failed to set down roots for whatever reason – compare the Australian Democrats until the Greens wiped them out. Or perhaps the sect might have spread throughout the New Age world and guaranteed a seat or two in various Parliaments simply through confessional bloc voting. Either way, it is absolutely ludicrous that more people are not aware of an international political movement which links Mikhail Gorbachev with a one-armed Chilean Nazi.