Previous articles I have published concerning sectarianism have been in the form of summaries of the basic characteristics of this trend. For this reason they have lacked the evidence from which these summaries have been drawn. Despite this obvious lack the articles have received a considerable number of views from visitors to this site. For these reasons and because it continues to be a persistent problem within the anti-capitalist movement (not to mention the Abrahamic religions of the world) critical-mass will contain articles focussing upon the evidence from which the previous articles are derived. This first part will consider the contributions of Marx and Engels on the question.

Marx and Engels on anti-capitalist sectarianism.

Although a great deal of the work of Marx and Engels was given over to theoretical and analytical works, it was a fundamental principle of their lives that when possible they also engaged in practical and organisational issues. The famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach, by Marx, announced an important conclusion – the point was not to just interpret the world but to change it. This was a conclusion to which both Marx and Engels, adhered. Indeed, it was Marx’s contention that every `step of real movement’ gained by the working and oppressed peoples – provided it was not at the expense of another section of workers within the world – was, ‘worth more than a dozen programmes’. The term ‘real’ requiring further qualification. This view led Marx and Engels to engage in supporting the practical anti-capitalist struggles of the working classes for solidarity throughout the world.

The importance of practical association led them, among other things, to support the foundation of the first International Working Men’s Association. These practical struggles and organisational problems within working class politics brought them into contact with many forms of sectarianism, and the effects this had upon the working class anti-capitalist struggle. Referring to one, Ferdinand Lassalle (a prominent German socialist of the mid 19th century), but applying it to other sectarians, Marx noted:

“Moreover, like everyone who maintains that he has a panacea for the sufferings of the masses in his pocket, he gave his agitation from the outset a religious and sectarian character. Every sect is in fact religious.” (Marx/Engels Selected Correspondence. Pub. Progress Publishers. page 201)

Every sect is in fact religious! The link between religious sectarianism and political sectarianism was strong enough for Marx to draw the conclusion that the nature of sectarianism always contains a religious element. This is because sects, even political sects, are largely based upon various forms of ‘belief’. Sectarians consider they have the solution, the ‘key’, the ‘cure’ – or panacea as Marx termed it – for the problems of the working people. These solutions are usually in the form of doctrines, principles or guidelines which they insist working people need to follow. Sectarians are usually extreme individualists, who feel themselves to be intellectually superior to those around them.

As a consequence the sectarian ‘elect’, whether religious or political, have an exaggerated view of their own importance and value, an exaggeration which arrogantly equates themselves with the ‘guardians’ and oracles of the needs and humanist aspirations of the whole of society. Interestingly, it is an arrogant self-importance and fanaticism which rarely originates from within the working and oppressed classes, even if on occasion it takes root there. Such sectarians have the answers in their bible’s, pockets (or pamphlets) – if only ordinary people would take notice! Marx contributed a further comment on the characteristics of political sectarianism:

“…The sect sees its raison d’être and it’s 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.” (Ibid. Marx to Schweitzer 13/10/1868. Marx/Engels Selected Correspondence page 201)

This is an important point when considering the problem of solidarity of working and oppressed people in struggle against the capitalist system. The point of honour of the political sect and its reason for existence is not what it has in common with the workers and the broader anti-capitalist movement, but what ‘trade mark’ or shibboleth distinguishes it from the movement. These trade marks also serve to distinguish between sects themselves. Thus when political sectarians urge solidarity and unity among the working classes (or among other groups) they invariably mean unity in accordance with their own sectarian principles. Useful solidarity with and among the working class is seen by the sect as ultimately dependent upon the working class and the anti-capitalist struggle accepting and following their ‘party line’. This, for them, is the only solidarity worth having.

Working people, particularly those organised in trade unions, and community groups are treated as just so much raw material to be moulded and shaped by resolutions and demands. From the exaggerated importance of their own ideas and policies it will come as no surprise that sectarians are highly motivated to define, not only differences between themselves, other groups and ordinary working people, but also to define and discover ‘superior’ intellectual positions for themselves. To them such dogmatic distinctions are important.

So sectarians are not just out to be different – but superior! Consequently they are usually intolerant of alternative viewpoints. Thus, these highly motivated and often talented individuals, who aspire to leadership of the rank and file, cannot resist the temptation to utilise their energies and talents to discover and expose shortcomings and ‘weakness’ in other people, particularly rival leaders. The targets for such destruction, are not just those belonging to the classes of oppressors, but include other political groups ostensibly fighting for the same thing. They also manifest the same destructive intolerance to potential rivals within their own group and, of course, any solidarity of the working and oppressed masses, with other groups.

Marx went on to point out that where sects developed in the early stages of the workers’ struggles, it was usual for them to merge, and enrich the general anti-capitalist movement, but he made a clear distinction between those early stages and later ones. In the case of Lassalle, what was actually being demanded was the opposite of merging; that the class movement:..’should subordinate itself to the movement of a particular sect.’ Marx then stated positively that:

“The INTERNATIONAL was founded in order to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by a really militant organisation of the working class……The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real working-class movement always stand in inverse proportion to each other. Sects are (historically) justified so long as the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary.” (Ibid. page 253.)

It couldn’t be stated any clearer than that. The first International was founded in order to be rid of sectarianism, to replace sectarian groupings with a real organisation of the anti-capitalist working class. Further, in Marx’s opinion, anti-capitalist sectarianism and the real working class movement always stand in inverse proportion to each other and all sects are essentially reactionary!

These are the considered judgements of Marx on the question of sectarianism in 1868. The date is important. This was no impatient or youthful dismissal of sectarianism by Marx. It occurred after the research, drafting and publication of Capital Volume 1. Nor, as we have seen, was this an isolated condemnation. Even twenty years earlier, Marx and Engels had asserted in the Communist Manifesto that anti-capitalists;

“…. do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” (Communist Manifesto. Peking edition page 49)

For over two decades, Marx and Engels had identified sectarianism as a problem. They argued that anti-capitalists should not try to shape and mould the proletarian movement; they shouldn’t set up sectarian principles of their own and demand that everyone else agrees to them. We have read that Marx argued that after a given stage of the working class movement, sects were essentially reactionary and that stage had been clearly passed by the publication of the Communist Manifesto. Marx was not alone in spearheading this attack upon sectarianism. Engels frequently characterised sectarians as either ‘narrow-minded people’ who want to stir everything into one ‘non-descript brew’, or on the other hand those who want to ‘adulterate’ the workers’ movement. In a circular from the General Council of the First International, Marx and Engels described the effects of sectarianism.

“Individual thinkers provide a critique of social antagonisms, and put forward fantastic solutions which the mass of workers can only accept, pass on, and put into practice. By their very nature, the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief, to any unified movement.” (Marx. The First International. and After’. Pub. Penguin. page 298)

‘Strangers… any unified movement’! In addition to putting forward fantastic or ideal solutions to the mass of workers, sectarians of that period were also strangers to all genuine action. Marx here clearly uses the term genuine action and unified movement to differentiate between those actions urged by sectarians, in pursuit of their own fantastic solutions, and those undertaken by workers struggling against capital. This characteristic arises because these thinkers are convinced of the correctness of their ‘ideal’ solutions and see the real struggle of workers as muddle-headed, mundane or full of compromises.

When workers start to struggle independently, the sectarians always exert much energy in attempting to gain acceptance of their own particular analysis. They stubbornly (dogmatically) insist on the ‘correctness’ of their line. The language of sectarians is often revealing. They promote strategies which the working class or anti-capitalists ‘must’ follow (for theirs are superior strategies to the ones ordinary people could come up with) in order to succeed. The tactics they outline are the ones which workers ‘need’ to adopt (for they are the only realistic ones) in order to win the struggle or achieve the allotted task.

The respective roles of sectarian groups and working people are clear in the language contained in the slogans brought to each and every struggle. The leaders will lead, and the workers will follow. Each group’s sectarian line, no matter how fantastic, has to be fought for and followed, either openly or covertly, in each and every struggle of the working class or anti-capitalist movement. Sectarian groups will compete fiercely with each other at meetings of workers in order to have their particular line adopted. Meetings called to arrange solidarity become bogged down, and get nowhere, as representatives of sectarian groups compete to shape and mould the policies of those in attendance. The group’s line becomes paramount, the actual anti-capitalist struggle becomes secondary.

When a sectarian group is successful in getting workers to adopt their particular line or strategy, then there is much inner group rejoicing, self-congratulation and even gloating. The effects of the ‘line’ on the workers’ struggle, or the end result of the particular dispute or issue, matters little in comparison to this. The particular workers’ struggle could fail, but if the line of the sect had been accepted, then the outcome would be seen as positive. What matters to these would-be leaders of the working masses is evidence of increasing influence over workers, not the progress of the workers’ anti-capitalist struggle itself. Marx and Engels also accurately noted that sectarians tend to be ‘noisy’, ‘self-glorifying’, ‘boastful’ ‘arrogant’ ‘repulsive’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘capricious’. Sectarians come in for some more severe criticism by Engels in connection with inappropriate calls for unity. Thus he noted that:

“It is for this reason that the biggest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues shout loudest for unity at certain times…..The movement of the proletariat is bound to pass through various stages of development; at every stage part of the people get stuck and do not join in the further advance; and even this alone is sufficient to explain why the `solidarity of the proletariat’ is in reality everywhere being realised in different party groupings, which carry on life and death feuds with one another, as the Christian sects in the Roman Empire did amidst the worst persecutions.” (Selected Correspondence. page 266/268)

So, according to Marx and Engels, sectarians were also frequently ‘brawlers’ and ‘rogues’. Again the link is made between religious tendencies within political forms of sectarianism. Engels also made clear that he had experienced sectarians shouting the loudest for unity at certain times, only to undermine it later. In a reference to English sectarianism and their theory, Engels also noted that :

“Anglo-Saxon sectarianism prevails in the labour movement, too. The Social Democratic Federation, just like your German Socialist Workers’ Party, has managed to transform our theory into the rigid dogma of an orthodox sect; ” (lbid page 449.)

Yet another aspect of anti-capitalist sectarianism is identified: the characteristic of transforming the flexible guidelines of revolutionary theory into a rigid dogma. In other words, sectarians, even those who call themselves Marxists, are quite capable of transforming the effective method espoused by Marx and Engels into a useless dogma. In particular we can note that according to Marx and Engels, sectarians justify their existence by the use of particular slogans or `positions’ (shibboleths) and they turn theory into dogma. They are essentially religious, and as soon as the working class is capable of independent movement, sectarians become profoundly reactionary.

Anyone who has come into contact with modern sectarians cannot fail to recognise that modern day 21st century sectarians and the groups to which they belong replicate to a greater or lesser extent the characteristics identified by Marx and Engel’s in the 19th century. It cannot escape the considered attention of those who try to understand the current wave of religious sectarianism in many parts of the world, that they share many of the characteristics and motivations that are manifested in the political variety. Characteristics which are listed in the article; ‘Sectarianism and the question of a general strike.’  

See also ‘The subtle characteristics of sectarianism’.

Roy Ratcliffe (June 2013.)


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  1. Shaun May says:

    Hello Roy

    I have been reading your work on ‘anti-capitalist sectarianism’. In a certain sense, the term itself is inherently contradictory. In what sense?

    ‘Anti-capitalist sectarianism’ serves to perpetuate an outlook and corresponding form of organisation which actually defeats the supposed purposes of its ‘anti-capitalist’ objectives. These dreadful sectarian groups, in their very ‘concept’ (Begriff), perpetuate and continuously return to forms of activity which never really ‘touch’ the rule of capital. Not one iota.

    This ‘anti-capitalist sectarianism’ is a bit like being a chimney sweep and whitewasher at that same time. One cannot be both simultaneously. They are mutually antagonistic activities, the intense sharpness of the contradiction of which simply cannot ‘hold’; cannot sustain itself in any existence.

    The moment I pick up my chimney sweep brush and my whitewashing brush, each activity immediately negates the other into an ineffectual, grey ‘synthetic’ mess. These sectarian groups are
    a real, counter-productive hindrance in the development of a revolutionary class movement. To paraphrase Marx : They are living in the ‘pores’ of the class movement but are not an intrinsic part of its life.

    Comradely regards

    Shaun May

    • Hi Shaun!

      I like your analogy of chimney sweep and simultaneous white-wash applications.
      In many ways anti-capitalist sectarianism is an oxymoron – a living contradiction – but one which did and still does exist. I still meet self-declared anti-capitalists who operate with one or more of the listed characteristics.
      So no wonder they don’t get very far these days.
      Regards, Roy

  2. Shaun May says:

    Hello Roy,

    But can we actually be, in our living practice, both ‘sectarian’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ at the same time?
    If we admit this, then this tends to legitimise, to a certain degree, the approach of the sectarian groups as actually being ‘anti-capitalist’ in their organisation and activities. They may be ‘self-declared anti-capitalist’ but are they against the rule of capital in the living truth of their practice?
    I don’t think we should approach sectarianism – as with religion – rationalistically (like with Dawkins et al) but rather historically in terms of the real living practice of these groups.
    This is precisely what I am referring to when I make the analogy with a whitewashing chimney sweep…….

    best wishes

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