In a previous article (‘Sectarianism and the question of a general strike) I identified ten characteristics of sectarianism obtained from the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Despite my severe reservations concerning the Leninist and Trotskyist positions and traditions, on the question of sectarianism, they made important observations. However, my own experience during the past 50 years of anti-capitalist involvement, revealed two additional ones.  The first was the absolute denial by sectarians of being sectarian, whist not even being aware of, or considering, the full range of the characteristics of sectarianism. The second was the characteristic of being dishonest with each other and with the working class.

These are two characteristics shared by all political groupings who are in competition with each other for leadership of populations including those seeking to lead the working and oppressed.  This is because elite forms of leadership require influence over those who can be influenced and manoeuvres against any rival leadership bids. Within the anti-capitalist struggle this sectarian characteristic of dishonesty takes the following forms. Sectarians;

1. Often exaggerate or inflate the numbers (or active members) they have in their group. (In order to appear stronger and more influential than they actually are.)

2. Often exaggerate or embellish their actual influence among their chosen target audiences. (Usually for the same reasons as point one.)

3. Often claim that decisions made essentially by individuals represent the decisions of the group. (As point one, but also to give the appearance of genuine, active, democratic practices.)

4. Often hide their true intentions to other participants while offering a substitute intention and working toward their witheld intention and in the process undermine unity. (Because the true intentions may be rejected by potential participants.)

5. Often hide or deny problematic situations or dubious practices within their own ranks. (Since potential recruits would be more likely to refrain from joining or associating with them.)

6. Often violently attack those who expose, sectarianism, hypocrisy or deviousness in their group whether this exposure comes from within or without. This often takes the form of a clandestine character assasination of individual or group critics. (In order to defend their self-promoted, superior image.)

7. Often vigorously defend their own allies, irrespective of any transgressions they may have carried out. (Because they are more committed to group results than principles.)

All the above practices are  the stuff of politics in general and is the stuff of sectarian traditions within the anti-capitalist struggle. It would be difficult if not impossible to find a group on the left that hasn’t practiced one or more of the above and many of the additional characteristics in the previously noted article. However, it is obvious, that when such thinly disguised characteristics and practices come to light – as eventually they must – it causes disgust and repulsion among those who are genuinely committed to unity and trust.

Such revelations often result in a loss of individuals to the anti-capitalist struggle. For so many left groups are sectarian that many view these characteristics as fundamental to anti-capitalism in general, instead of the sectarian mentality in particular. This loss to the anti-capitalist struggle represents not just the numbers involved but the talents, skills and energy these individuals take with them.

This drain on the anti-capitalist movement has taken place over several decades and it cannot be surprising.  Solidarity and trust are essential features to develop the anti-capitalist struggle. If they are lacking, then all positive development is lost, and only suspicion and a fractured, splintered disunity remains. Which is fundamentally what I hope we – and others – are trying to overcome.

If we are to genuinely succeed in creating a different tradition within the anti-capitalist left, than that of past generations, then certain things follow. I suggest adherence to at least the following six principles would begin to create a different non-sectarian culture among anti-capitalists which could only have positive results.

1. Opposition to Capitalism in all its economic, social and economic forms.

2. Opposition to dogmatism and sectarianism.

3. Opposition to polemical distortion in disagreements.

4. Opposition to disrespect, sarcasm, and intimidation.

5. A commitment to sharing information and understanding.

6. A refusal to allow theoretical differences to impede or prevent joint action.

For the 10 characterisitics of sectarianism see Sectarianism and the question of a General Strike.

Roy Ratcliffe (November 2012)

This entry was posted in Critique, Marx, Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Maju says:

    Hi there. I just found this article most interesting (it even applies to scientific debates with just minor changes!) so I reblogged it. If you have any problem please tell me and I will remove it.

    • Hi Maju!

      Yes that’s fine by me. I hadn’t made that connection so thanks. I do remember reading Kuhn on the structure of scientific revolutions and thinking that a paradigm shift was needed among the left. More recently reading Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax made me aware of the often uphill climb involved.

      Regards, Roy

      • Maju says:

        I was not aware of the Sokal affair but I do write a blog on prehistory, anthropology and poulation genetics (much more popular than my political one) and along the years I have faced several of what I’d call intellectual trolls, i.e. people who know more or less what they are talking about (sometimes academics) but have (1) extremely fixated ideas on which is the “truth” of certain or even most matters (scientific sectarianism) and (2) are verbose and stubborn, often resorting to many of the manipulations you list here like polemicism, etc.

        IMO that’s some sort of psychiatric disequilibrium but I can’t judge beyond that. Something that is clear is that we people are not the rational machines that some would like us to but that we are penetrated and directed by powerful emotions often unconscious. There’s a balance between rationality and emotion (which is also important for many reasons) but when this balance is way to tilted to either side or otherwise not well structured… problems arise.

        Sectarism can also be found in peer-reviewed papers, of course. Peer-review is a barrier (not always something good) but not fully impervious to manipulation. IMO it succeeds a lot when statistical methods are the main tool, because these can be manipulated to produce this or that result with just minor unappraciable tampering of the very parameters (generally assumptions themselves) on which the statistical estimate or simulation is made.

        This may approach a bit more the way that sectarianism acts in red politics, because we do a lot of estimation and advance simulation in order to grasp what the future (or alternative histories if looking to the past) may look like and what should we do about it. If you hold a celebre viewpoint or are a good manipulator of the kind who can come up with good “scientific” or “common sense” ad hoc answers, cite a couple of classical authors, etc… then you can sweep the opinion to your side even if wrong, being the result much a matter of charisma rather than of truthfulness, which is hard to gauge.

      • Hi Maju!

        I think from what you write below you would find Alan Sokal’s ‘Beyond the Hoax’ very interesting. He quotes Russell;

        “I mean by intellectual integrity the habit of deciding vexed questions in accordance with the evidence, or of leaving them undecided where the evidence is inconclusive. This virtue, though is under-estimated by almost all adherents of any system of dogma…”

        Could you give me a link to or the name of your blogs as I have an interest in pre-history and anthropology. (the one given on your comment did’nt get me there.)

        A decade ago I wrote a long book on the left which contained a chapter on the ‘Evolutionary basis of co-operation and Humanism’ The chapter included some evidence drawn from 36 pre-agricultural peoples as well as material drawn from Marx’s ethnological notebooks, Maisals, social insect research and material from various works on symbiotic relationships in evolution – primarly influenced by Lynn Margulis research. However, I had no access to people who specialised in these areas to check out my ideas and conclusions.

        I intend to re-publish it electronically not too far in the future as I only have a few hard copies left so would like to update my knowledge on this area before I do so.



      • Maju says:

        I tried to reply before but WP filters redirecting links and all blogger links are that way now. I have circumvented this in the past by posting the canadian format (WP is based in Canada, it seems):

        Hope it goes through now. My original reply was more extensive – sorry about that.

  2. Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It’s on a entirely different subject but it has pretty much the same page layout and design.
    Superb choice of colors!

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