Notes on sectarianism

This has been something I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. However, each time I have given up because I can’t find the words to articulate something which flowed brilliantly as a rant, but not so well as prose. So, you’ll have to forgive me if this post comes out more as a polemic than a discussion piece.

There’s a ballad from the 1930s called “Bill Bailey – The Ultimate Sectarian.” Whilst not anywhere near as well known as the “splitter” joke from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, it demonstrates just how long left-wing politics has been plagued by sectarianism. In On the history of Early Christianity, Frederich Engels noted that “common to the early Christians and the Socialists” were “contradictions, lack of clarity and lack of cohesion” which led to “the formation of numerous sects which right against one another with at least the same zeal as against the common external enemy.”

However, whilst Engels attributed this to “the beginning of the socialist movement,” the same pattern prevails today.

The proclamation of The Communist Manifesto that “the communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties” and “do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement” has proven to be a falsehood. The socialist left is riddled with sects. There are parties and fronts beyond counting.

But just as this is not a new problem, is it also not a solvable one. Every time the prospect of “left unity” arises, it emerges as simply a recruiting front for one or other of the sects. The refusal of other sects to join in, even out of a fairly valid concern that they will be subsumed, it serves only to harden divisions.

A contemporary example of this is in the present movement against government cuts in Britain. In August, a letter appeared in the Guardian calling for “a broad movement of active resistance to the Con-Dem government’s budget intentions.” This gave birth to the Coalition of Resistance, supposedly a way of “supplementing, rather than supplanting, trade union, student, pensioner and community opposition to austerity measures” in “a non-sectarian way.” However, this followed on from the Socialist Workers’ Party relaunching their Right to Work campaign in exactly the same capacity. The Workers’ Power/Alliance for Workers’ Liberty-backed National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and SWP’s Education Activist Network fit the same mould. This is not to mention the Socialist Party’s National Shop Steward’s Network’s (NSSN) relaunch this coming January.

They represent a phenomenon I have written on before, that of tiny Leninst sects establishing fronts in order to control or monopolise a movement. The problem is, when everybody considers themselves as the “elite” and the “revolutionary leadership,” they’re never going to trust the other guys laying claim to the same mantle.

The same problems don’t really exist within the anarchist movement. Yes, there are a number of different groups based on differing tendencies, and there are criticisms between the organisations. However, this is not what consumes our time, and nor is trying to lay a monopoly claim on anarchism or recruit at all costs. Members of the Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation, Class War, et al will happily work together, play together, and save most of our differences for a friendly chat in the pub.

Ultimately, a movement built from the ground up with no central party line allows people to thrash out differences of opinion. It is easier to reach a consensus, or a compromise, when your politics are founded upon several core principles rather than a complex web of ideological dogma. And without the yoke of democratic centralism.

However, of course, from the other side this is portrayed entirely differently. It is the Leninists and the authoritarian left who oppose sectarianism. They are, after all, forever calling for “unity” and seeking to work with people outside their parties under the auspices of a “broad front” or a “popular front.” The anarchists, on the other hand, are forever criticising and poking holes. We refuse to join the coalitions, to sign the petitions, or generally to answer the calls for unity.

But this is precisely the issue that I have wanted to address whenever I have tried to write this post. Namely, that sectarianism can refer to two entirely separate things. On the one hand, it describes a very real phenomenon of in-fighting between sects with the most minimal philosophical differences. On the other, it is an accusation – thrown about by those same sects to silence disagreement and critical discussion.

One of the most recent examples of this came when Laurie Penny wrote the following on the student protests for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free;

It is highly significant that one of the first things this hydra-headed youth movement set out to achieve was the decapitation of its own official leadership. When Aaron Porter of the National Union of Students was seen to be “dithering” over whether or not to support the protests, there were immediate calls for his resignation – and in subsequent weeks the NUS has proved itself worse than irrelevant as an organising force for demonstrations.

Of course, the old left is not about to disappear completely. It is highly likely that even after a nuclear attack, the only remaining life-forms will be cockroaches and sour-faced vendors of the Socialist Worker. Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action.

Perhaps the particular point, comparing Socialist Worker vendors to cockroaches was ill-considered. Perhaps it wasn’t. Either way, it certainly caused some consternation.

A Facebook page soon emerged called “Revolutionary Smiles,” urging people to “upload your pictures of smiling Socialist Worker sellers, on demos, in your high street, or elsewhere – and lets get an idea of exactly how sour-faced and cockroach-like we are!” Several SWP members posted on her Facebook wall, urging her to “change your opinion of us.”

Alex Callincos responded with a journalistic pat on the head, patronisingly reminding Penny that “old political problems don’t simply go away when a new movement emerges.” The implication of this has been explicitly stated in an older, and more general response to criticism in his party’s paper: “The SWP is not perfect. We’ve made many mistakes. But you need us, so that you can participate in a collective, debate over strategy and then put it to the test.”

Richard Seymour’s response over at Liberal Conspiracy was more overt;

We don’t make it a condition of unity that you agree with us, or even like us very much. But it would help if, when we’re actually trying to help build unity in the most urgent situations, such as the struggle against fascism, others on the Left don’t try to undermine that unity with spurious and ungrounded attacks on those they disagree with.

The problem, of course, was that Penny didn’t make a “spurious and ungrounded attack.” She is far from the first person to claim that “the SWP has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade,” and with good reason. Even Seymour admits that the aim of the various front groups he lauds as building “cohesion on the left” is to have “SWP members in a leading role.”

And that’s the problem. Making valid criticisms of people or organisations isn’t “sectarian” or “undermining unity,” it’s part of the process of being open and honest. Democratic centralists may not understand this, but those who believe in genuine democracy will. Shouting down all criticism in the name of a strawman called “unity,” however, or actively undermining movements in the name of party-building and maintaining control is sectarian.

To be sectarian isn’t to criticise sects, it’s to put the interests of that sect ahead of the interests of the demographic group it supposedly advocates. In this case, the working class.

This is the point that needs to be made. I’ll not focus on the specific faults of the SWP here because, as well as having written about them numberous times before, that isn’t the focus of the article. It is that whilst, yes, sectarianism is a real phenomenon, and rife within left-wing politics, simply criticising individuals, organisations, or tendencies is not it.

I make this point at length simply because we are in a time of heightened crisis. The class war is raging more heatedly than ever, and that means that those who wish to dominate, control, or contain it will be using the call of unity to gather people into their net. Those who speak up at betrayals or attempted demobilisations will be denounced, named and shamed as sectarians who are “undermining unity,” because we have challenged their opinion.

But challenging opinions is not a bad thing. It is healthy, and vital to functioning democracy. And whilst having those disagreements I am happy to work and struggle alongside comrades who are members of the Labour Party, the Socialist Party, the AWL, or anybody else.

Indeed, I do. Liverpool Antifascists, for example, is a broad-based group which contains people from a variety of tendencies. (Though not, I must say, the SWP, whose members elected to form a new branch of UAF and look upon LiverAF with scorn as “that anarchist group.”) But I am talking of individuals. Neither I nor the Solidarity Federation would work with the parties or sects those individuals are involved in for the simple reason that (were we not simply dismissed out of hand for being anarchists) “working with” would in fact equate to being subsumed and losing our autonomy. Hierarchies are self-perpetuating and authoritarianism exists to shore up authority.

Which, of course, is the point – we don’t need unity between different leftist power sects as they control and “lead” the working class. We need unity amongst the working class itself, in an open and democratic movement built from below.

2 Responses to “Notes on sectarianism”
  1. Emma Pooka says:

    Excellent post, Phil – thanks!

    You’re absolutely right, sectarianism doesn’t happen because people belong to different organisations, it happens when people put their own organisation’s centrality above solidarity and start trying to use the movement to further their own ends. The fact that this is what left political parties do doesn’t make their activists any less committed or genuine, but it does destroy radical movements from within, because it takes the focus away from what unites us, creating artificial divisions and a sense that if you’re not with the party, it’s not your movement – you can support it, but not have a voice in its direction. Having a leadership can’t help but create a separation between leadership and membership, and that’s what we need to guard against at all costs. As soon as one group steps forward and says “We owe this victory to the Three Letter Acronym and I’d like to thank everybody for coming…” – that’s when we all fall down.

    There are some brilliant activists involved in organising the student movement right now, and some are school students with no ties to any organisation, and some are lecturers with ties to trade unions, and others are anarchists and others are SWPies or AWL and some are even Labour, and the reason it’s still working and vibrant and hopeful is that, thus far, nobody is involved as a member of their political organisation; everybody is there as a student, an education worker, a public service worker, an unemployed worker, a parent, a benefits claimant – there’s almost nobody who isn’t going to be in some way personally affected by these cuts, and everybody has their own reason to be there above and beyond any loyalty to a particular party or organisation. At meetings, we’re actually talking about core issues and tactics on their own merits without trying to convert each other or take control, and that’s why we’re able to work together and create this incredible force that’s got the state so scared it’s revealing its true face.

    What I’m nervous about now, especially after seeing the vitriol of those shouting down Laurie Penny for daring to criticise the SWP, is how much longer it will stay that way. I can see this movement falling apart just because people are taking tactical and organisational criticisms as personal ones, and responding in kind, and that would be disastrous for all of us. There could be no greater victory for the government than to see all resistance to the cuts dissolve in a stagnant puddle of in-fighting.

  2. Harry says:

    Socialist Worker and the psychotics who sell it are the syphillis of Socialism and Marxism. I wouldn’t personally piss on them if the spontaneously combusted. Whatever Millitant are calling themselves these days fall into the same category.

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