The recent question on how to ‘get a General Strike’ by the SWP is sadly a typically ill-thought out rhetorical enquiry reminiscent of the many proposals made by numerous sectarian left groups in the 1990’s. And it probably stems from the same motivations. 1. the delusion that a few people, usually in the leadership ranks of a sectarian group, are capable of articulating the ’correct’ strategies or ‘solution’ for every stage of the struggle against capital. 2. The attempt during a period of unrest to appear the most radical group in order to attract new members. Such reckless and premature schemes to instigate General Strikes did then (in the 90’s) and does now a great disservice to the actual struggle facing working people. In general there are lots of problems with inappropriately advocating this tactic for it trivialises the preparations necessary for the success of such an important class-wide action and ignores the actual social and economic circumstances which are necessary for its usefulness in the process of transforming the existing crisis-ridden capitalist system. The fact that to some people ‘it sounds like a good idea’ – is simply not sufficient reason to raise such a serious question and particularly from within the ranks of a small organisation, that according to a number of former members, is itself in something of an internal crisis.
In the case of the preparations for a General Strike in the UK by the Triple Alliance (1919 – 1921) despite the incredibly detailed planning, (alternative money printed, local committees and food distribution networks formed, etc), despite the fortuitous circumstance and extensive support among workers, the trade union leadership of the day were prepared to, and able to, sabotage the entire project. When the circumstances had changed and the previous preparations had atrophied, the eventual General Strike called in 1926 was easily defeated with momentous and long-lasting set-backs for working people. The whole history of that struggle has been insufficiently studied, evaluated and disseminated among the anti-capitalist left, let alone sufficiently informing the broad movements of working people. Furthermore, the circumstances in 2011 UK I suggest are still far from those which warrant the posing of such a serious and important question, which in any case should emerge from the actual development of the struggle itself, rather than from any individual sects urging. The very question of such a momentous stage in the struggle against capitalism, needs lengthy discussion and the clear presentation of the successes and failures such strikes have had. For if such an idea is not already being widely discussed and absorbed within and among the organised and unorganised workers it has little chance of occurring. Plus if it has not become widely obvious to all, that such a step and its subsequent implications to many, are not only possible, but millions are ready for it because nothing else has worked, then such calls are premature and can even be self-defeating.
This call by one ’left’ group and not others, also illustrates another crucial problem in the contemporary struggle against the systems reactionary developments. It is the complete fragmentation of the left, into competing mini-organisations. Each one of whom imagine they are the basis of some future leading vanguard which only needs augmenting by a sufficient infusion of militant workers. The role of such groups in any future mass actions will in some cases be counter-productive for they will not only continue to confuse people with the use of ill-thought out slogans and terminology, but also serve to nurture separate solidarity actions in which they promote their own particular line, irrespective of its resonance or otherwise with the class movement as a whole. In some cases, as they have in the past, they will formally or informally boycott solidarity actions which they do not ‘lead’ or do not fully agree with. In one of many statements about this trend of anti-capitalist sectarianism, Marx noted;
“..The sect sees its raison d’etra and its point of honour not, in what it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement.” (Marx to Schweitzer 13/10/1868. Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence. Page 201.)
The date of the above letter is informative with regard to the longevity of sectarianism within the left in general. Its continuance still plagues the anti-capitalist movement as it did during Marx‘s lifetime. When Marx later declared he was not a ‘Marxist’ it was this trend he was disassociating himself from. These important observations get precious little consideration these days. It is, therefore, worth considering the range of sectarian characteristics which are manifested by such behaviour within the anti-capitalist movement.
a) The characteristics of Sectarianism.
1. Sectarians maintain they have the solution, the ‘key’ to problems in their doctrines or principles.
2. The reason for their existence is some ‘special’ criteria which sets them apart from the rest.
3. Sectarians have a religious-type unshakeable belief in their correctness and humanities ‘need’ for their guidance.
4. Sectarians carry out serious struggle against each other even in the face of common danger.
5. Sectarians often elevate trivialities to the level of principles in order to keep themselves separate or to engineer a split.
6. Sectarians often shout loudest for unity, whilst continuing to undermine it by their actions.
7. Sectarians are often extremely bitter polemicists and frequently poison the atmosphere of debate.
8. Sectarians are often boastful and arrogant, in their actions and their certainty of being ‘correct’.
9. Sectarians are generally satisfied by logical deductions and the use of abstractions.
10. Sectarians, explicitly or implicitly demand that the whole opposition movement should follow them.
This list is constructed from the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and yet it is possible to find groups simultaneously displaying several of these characteristics and some even displaying them all, yet claiming to follow one or more of the above named anti-capitalist intellectuals. So it is worth noting the implications of such sectarian activity taken from the same sources.. This time I have included the particular source of the opinion.
b)The effects of Sectarianism.
1. It repels serious working people. (Trotsky)
2. Sectarianism is essentially reactionary. (Marx)
3. Sectarians do not create leaders among working people. (Lenin)
4. Where they exist they infect or adulterate the workers movement. (Engels.)
5. Sectarians transform theory into dogma. (Marx/Engels/Lenin.)
6. Sectarianism is a pernicious menace. (Lenin)
c) The causes of Sectarianism.
1. The immaturity of the working class movement. (Marx)
2. Certain people become static and cannot advance. (Engels)
3. A downturn or an ebb in the revolutionary movement. (Trotsky)
4. The existence within the movement of people with force and ability who think themselves and their ideas as superior.(Marx/Engels/Trotsky.)
Since human beings are products, not simply of natural processes, but of the form of human society in which they live, we can also trace the underlying cause of modern sectarianism in the nature of modern capital-dominated society. It is obvious that the influences of the external world (natural and social) upon human beings manifest themselves as thoughts, feelings, reflexes and tendencies in the brains of individuals and groups. We also know that the world dominated by capital is characterised at every level by contradictions; between wealth and poverty; co-operation and competition; ideology and practice; rhetoric and reality etc. It is therefore inevitable that these and similar contradictions manifest themselves, in the political structures of modern society. From the working class perspective we see this intrusion most profoundly in the reformist political parties and trade union movements with their respective oligarchic controls. From time to time, these contradictions also emerge within the anti-capitalist movement. How could they not? Capital dominated societies, due to their material circumstances, not only produce thoughts and feelings of solidarity emanating from the experience of working and oppressed classes, but also those of competition and accentuated individualism much of which haemorrhages corrosively from the experience of other classes.
We are all subject to these conflicting and contradictory pressures. Despite any good intentions (or in some cases grandiose pretensions), the numerous ‘brands’ of ‘left’ groups competitively struggling among the masses, for superior ‘product identity’, have in many ways become a distorted reflection of the capitalist ‘service sector’ – also limited only by their own niche-market customer base. The two extreme ‘poles’ of socialised production and individual capitalist advocacy contained within the totality of capitalist relations, I suggest, are often reflected in the totality of the workers movement by the two extreme ‘poles’ of workers self-activity and sectarian vanguard superiority. In other words the elitist assertion of leaders and led. In this sense, anti-capitalist sectarianism and vanguard elitism (for me, two sides of the same bourgeois ideological currency) are direct manifestations of the bourgeois and petite-bourgeois competitive ethos within the workers movement. As such they need to be consistently and strenuously opposed. If they are not, they will remain a primary source of division and disunity among the working class anti-capitalist forces. In addition, without continuous, careful identification and isolation, in the event of a successful, overthrow of the capitalist system, sectarianism will also become the main cause any future post-capitalist degeneration – as it did so disastrously in the Soviet experiment 1917 – 1922, before Stalin and his clique took it to its logical conclusions.
d) The cures for Sectarianism.
Of course there can be no hope of overcoming sectarianism within the anti-capitalist workers movement unless it is recognised that a serious problem of sectarianism exists. In my view a difficulty in the past in clearly recognising the extent of the problem has been caused by the lack of sufficient analysis of its characteristics. By using the previous lists of characteristics and effects we can examine our own and others conduct in the continuing struggle against capital and take the necessary steps to oppose it where it exists. I suggest the following points as logical steps in that process.
1. A determination to get rid of sectarianism.
2. A refusal to allow different interpretations to prevent a positive unity of the anti-capitalist movement.
3. The elevation of the needs of the anti-capitalist workers movement above the needs of ones’ own group and questioning the reason for the groups’ separate existence.
4. A refusal to hero worship individuals.
5. A re-examination of the concept of leadership within the revolutionary struggle against capital.
6. The identification of working-class men and women as non-sectarian facilitators among their class and the anti-capitalist movement.
We can see from the combined analysis of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, that sectarianism is an egocentric pattern of behaviour. A pattern which displays arrogance and an unshakeable belief in the correctness of a particular set of views – often in the form of logical deductions, speculative ‘abstractions’ and political ‘trade marks’. In its political form it is a deep seated and long lasting tendency within and around left wing revolutionary, anti-capitalist and even nationalist politics. As with religious sectarianism, it is ideologically parasitic on the humanist aspirations of those suffering exploitation and oppression and wishing to end it. For sectarians (religious and political) feed off this humanistic aspiration, in order to justify their existence, whilst they simultaneously destroy it by their divisive practices. Practices that only serve to undermine the potential achievement of those post-capitalist aspirations.
We need only ask ourselves a few simple but searching questions at this point. What would be the result of giving such sectarian individuals considerable power? If anti-capitalist (or religious) sectarians were ever to succeed in their quest to have the working class put them in power, what would happen? If, as a result of an anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist revolution they found at their disposal armed forces of coercion with the power and authority to implement their ideas, how would they go about it? Points 1 to 10 (in the previous contribution) provide us with an indication of how these questions might be answered. We need only go back over those ten points one by one and ask ourselves how sectarians with full control of state power would conduct themselves; with power to implement their policies with an unshakeable belief in their correctness. Men of arrogance and extreme bitterness – in control of weapons of oppression and destruction. Some sectarians even without state power can be dangerous enough in unleashing indiscriminate acts of vilification, character assassination, vengeance and even terror, it makes one shudder to contemplate their control of even greater forces. Can we really expect such people to lead humanity into a non-oppressive future? The effects as summarised in points 1 to 6 (section ‘b’ above) are serious enough when the sectarians in question have little or no power and authority. To see the extreme effects of these political sectarian characteristics, when displayed by men with unlimited power to back them up, we need only examine reality as it unfolded in Cambodia under Pol Pot, in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or for that matter, under National Socialism in Nazi Germany.
Although it is quite correct to apply the term ‘sectarian’ to small groupings which display divisive and bigoted behaviour by sectarian ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’, these characteristics are not necessarily exclusive to small groups. They are merely more frequently found there. The characteristics of sectarianism, since they arise from the actions of individuals, singly and in groups, can arise within large political movements as well as small ones. It should be noted, therefore, that sectarian behaviour takes place wherever the mixture of the previously noted characteristics is strong enough to organise as a distinct political (or religious) tendency or manifest itself within one. It is essential to recognise the full range of sectarian characteristics, identified and not just the most extreme or bizarre. Otherwise, groups or individuals, who are thoroughly sectarian, yet do not manifest the more extreme symptoms, can mask their sectarianism, for long periods of time. Long enough to do important damage to the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle. All the characteristics are important, but in one sense it is more important that the subtle and hidden characteristics of sectarianism are given serious consideration. It is obvious that the more bizarre aspects are easily identifiable, whilst other aspects can go on almost unnoticed – until it is too late!
Once in existence sectarianism is divisive, corrosive and leads to disgust and disillusionment amongst working people and others in the anti-capitalist struggle and in other struggles against oppression. It could not be otherwise in movements with a humanist purpose, because sectarianism so clearly contradicts that purpose. This much could perhaps have been established by a study of existing sectarian organisations and without recourse to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky. However, the response of sectarians, claiming orthodoxy with Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky, may have led to attempts to rebuff such challenges. Many are often in what elsewhere, might be classified as – a psychological state of ‘denial’. Alternatively, many undoubtedly claim that their ready-made answers and ‘unshakeable beliefs’ derive from a superior knowledge of their originators thoughts. Sectarian defensive rationalisation often attempts to represent its bitterness and poison as revolutionary zeal and political steel; their use of logical deductions and abstractions as flowing from their advanced theoretical grasp. Now at least, in order to rationalise any continued sectarianism, anti-capitalist sectarians will have to take into account their own ideological forerunners.
To sum up.
It should no longer escape the notice of anyone but the most dogmatic and blind sectarian, that sectarianism is not just a minor aberration, but cuts to the very heart of the opposition to the capitalist system. In all its forms, religious and political the tendency focuses on differences and exacerbates divisions. It’s anti-capitalist adherents turn materialist dialectics into fixed categories or dogma. They frequently make ill-judged demands upon workers along with inappropriately idealistic calls, such as the above one ‘to follow other countries where general strikes’ have allegedly taken place. All this before adequate preparations and serious evaluations have taken place. As a political tendency, 21st century sectarianism invariably repels serious working people and other potential anti-capitalists, as it did in the 19th and 20th. Marx considered sectarianism as quite simply reactionary! There can be no greater verbal indictments than those encountered so far. The implications of these combined observations are clear. Sectarianism, within the ranks of those opposed to the capitalist or imperialist system, can undermine that opposition to such a degree that it becomes a significant factor – if not the most significant factor in the present period. A factor which is effective in preventing unity of the anti-capitalist forces. In the 21st century it is not enough simply to be part of the anti-capitalist struggle: in order to further that struggle, we need also to seriously combat sectarianism.
[The above article contains material from chapter 1 of a book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-capitalist Struggle’, by R. Ratcliffe. Copies of which can be obtained by contacting Roy at; (firstname.lastname@example.org)]
For a further update on sectarianism in its more subtle modern forms see http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/