ANTI-CAPITALIST SECTARIANISM (Part 2)

In part 1 of the evidence base for the full characteristics of sectarianism the opinions of Marx and Engels on the phenomena were presented. In this second part I will present the views of Lenin and Trotsky. Given that both Lenin and Trotsky were themselves extremely sectarian on many occasions their views on the question may seem a strange inclusion. However, sectarians often recognise the phenomena in others, whilst remaining blind to its manifestation in themselves.

The views of Lenin and Trotsky on this issue are therefore well worth consideration, particularly as the contemporary followers of Lenin and Trotsky frequently emulate them in this regard. They too use the term sectarian to describe people or groups they disagree with whilst manifesting many of the characteristics themselves. A careful reader will certainly recognise this fact.

Lenin on sectarianism.

In a letter responding to `The Socialist Propaganda League’ of the USA, Lenin made a point in relationship to ‘immediate demands’;

“We preach always that a socialist party not uniting this struggle for reforms with the revolutionary methods of the working class movement can become a sect, can be severed from the masses , and that is the most pernicious menace to the success of the clear-cut revolutionary socialism.” (Lenin, Letter to the Secretary of the Socialist Propaganda League’ published in ‘Lenin on Britain.’ Pub. Moscow. 1959 page 254)

Skip over the evangelical term ‘preach’ for a moment and focus on; ‘Anti-capitalist groups can become sectarian and this is a pernicious menace!’ We should note a further point which is stressed here by Lenin. In the case of reform or revolution it is not a question of either/or. According to Lenin, this kind of dualistic contrast is falsely put. Rather, it is a question of addressing both.

Without raising the question of the need for revolutionary transformation within reformist struggles those involved accommodate to reformist moods. Without engaging in struggles for reforms the group becomes an idealistic sect. Without such a synthesis, Lenin concluded, the danger – indeed the pernicious menace! – of sectarianism would be ever present. To overcome the dangers of this circle mentality Lenin suggested;

“There can be no dogmatism where the supreme and sole criterion of a doctrine is it’s conformity to the actual process of social and economic development; there can be no sectarianism when the task is that of promoting the organisation of the proletariat, and when therefore, the role of the ‘intelligentsia’ is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary. ” (Lenin, Selected Works. Moscow. Vol. 1. page 298.)

The use of the term ‘doctrine’, as with the previous term ‘preach’, is somewhat suspect for it does not coincide with the view of Marx or Engels concerning the non-dogmatic theory they espoused. This represents one of many fundamental contradictions in Lenin, which I have dealt with in other articles. [see Marxists versus Marx: and ‘The Party; Help or Hindrance‘.] Nonetheless, the point he makes concerning sectarianism is accurate and quite clear.

Along with stating the need for theory to conform to the ‘actual social and economic process’ – the only insurance against idealism and dogma – no simple task, one requiring patience – we find a suggestion for an antidote to sectarianism. It is the task of an anti-capitalist intelligentsia, to promote the self-organisation of working people, and in the process make themselves redundant. In a letter to Iskra arguing for `openness’ and the discussion of differences to safeguard party unity, Lenin took up the anti-circle theme once again.

“Indeed, it is high time to make a clean sweep of the traditions of circle sectarianism and – in a party which rests on the masses – resolutely advance the slogan: MORE LIGHT! – let the Party know EVERYTHING, let it have ALL, ABSOLUTELY ALL THE MATERIAL required for a judgement of all and sundry differences, reversions to revisionism, departures from discipline, etc. More confidence in the judgement of the whole body of party workers! – they, and they alone, will be able to curb the excessive hot-headedness of grouplets inclined to splits; will be able, by their slow, imperceptible but persistent influence, to imbue them with the `good will’ to observe party discipline, will be able to cool the ardour of anarchistic individualism and, by the very fact of their indifference, document, prove and demonstrate the triviality of differences exaggerated by the elements tending toward a split.” (Lenin. Complete Works. Volume 7 page 116. Emphasis added R.R.)

Also ignore for the moment Lenin’s emphasis on ‘party discipline’ the imposition of which caused many party members to commit genocidal atrocities at the behest of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Within this quotation there is much that is specifically addressed to the Russian situation but there is also a considerable amount which has a wider geographic and historical significance.

For example:- ‘more light’ – ‘transparency’ – as the modern idiom would describe it. Think of the recent cover-ups of all political groups including those on the left; the need to cool the ardour of extreme individuals; (these individuals of ‘force and ability’ again), hot-headed grouplets inclined to splits needing curbing. There is more – much more. In the preface to a collection of letters published in 1907, for example, Lenin added:

“Marx and Engels taught the socialists to rid themselves AT ALL COST of narrow sectarianism, and TO JOIN with the working class movement so as TO SHAKE UP the proletariat politically.” (Lenin. Complete Works. Volume. 12 page 373. Emphasis added. RR)

Lenin in this passage used the prestige of Marx and Engels among the Russian anti-capitalists, in order to bring their weight, as well as his own, to bear upon the struggle against Russian sectarianism. He makes the case that anti-capitalist sectarianism should be got rid of – AT ALL COSTS! How many contemporary anti-capitalist groups are doing this? They haven’t even begun systematically analysing the phenomena.

In spite of the views of Marx and Engels; in spite of the experiences of working class struggles; in spite of all this, Lenin, with all his authority within the revolutionary movement of Russia, was still having to argue forcefully against sectarianism – only ten years before the successful Bolshevik involvement in the Russian revolution! Lenin was able for a time to counter some aspects of this sectarian tendency within a narrow faction, but as I describe elsewhere, he was not able to eliminate entirely its influence within Bolshevism.

Trotsky on sectarianism.

Leon Trotsky, is probably the most maligned revolutionary thinker of the 20th century. It was a situation which occurred because he had the misfortune to be the outstanding Soviet oppositional figure during the reign of Joseph Stalin. This made certain that Trotsky’s role would be distorted and reviled as far as it was in the power of Stalin to do so, and for a time that power was considerable. With the death of Lenin a struggle opened up for who should take his place as leader of the Party. Suffice to say for the purposes of this article that Stalin won, and Trotsky lost in the struggle for power and influence.

Trotsky, both before his expulsion, and after settling outside the Soviet Union, began to try to rally those individuals and organisations who were able to see that the Soviet Union was going drastically wrong. The organisational framework which Trotsky and his supporters initially chose to try to rally that opposition to Stalin, was known as the International Left Opposition. It was at this time that he decided to again describe the phenomenon of sectarianism. It was in connection with problems encountered by the German section of the Left Opposition, Trotsky noted that;

“…the Opposition is developing under the conditions of a continuing revolutionary ebb that breeds sectarianism and ‘circle’ sentiments.” (Trotsky. Writings 1930/31 Pub. Pathfinder. page 140)

Aware of the dangers of isolation, and the lack of understanding of the methods and principles of Marx and of course, Bolshevism, Trotsky wrote extensively of the need to overcome them within the ranks of the Left Opposition. Well aware that sectarian characteristics were already developing within the group he led, Trotsky wrote;

“Whether we are a sect or not will be determined not by the quantity of the elements who are at present grouped around our banner, nor even by the quality of these elements (for we are very far from the point where all are of the highest quality), but rather by the totality of the ideas, the program, the tactics, and organisation our particular group can bring to the movement.” (Trotsky. Writings 1930-31 Pub. Pathfinder. page 252. emphasis added RR)

For those who have studied the full range of sectarian characteristics it will be obvious that the ‘totality of the ideas, the programme, the tactics and organisation’, Trotsky refers to was itself steeped in sectarianism. Yet even with his considerable ability and standing within this grouping, Trotsky did not rule out the possibility of the organisation to which he belonged becoming what he considered a sect. Indeed, he outlined a few of the factors upon which such an outcome would depend.

In the above noted volume and its supplement, Trotsky wrote of the sickness within the newly formed Left Opposition and of the danger of looking foolish before the working people of the world. He also wrote of the need for honesty and openness including an honest attitude to one’s own mistakes. How often do we come across that? These themes continued in the later Volume of 1933-34 for, as problems, they continued to flourish. In writing on the conditions under which the French League was founded after the disintegration and decomposition of the French Communist Party, Trotsky noted:

“..its inner life represented a series of crises that never reached the level of principles but distinguished themselves by extreme bitterness and poisoned the atmosphere of the organisation, repelling serious workers despite their sympathy for the ideas of the Opposition.” (Trotsky. Writings 1933-34 Pub. Pathfinder. page 88)

Ring any bells? Although this quotation does not specifically mention the word sectarianism, Trotsky is certainly describing many of the effects and symptoms of this phenomenon. The quote identifies the clear symptom of bitter internal crises which never reach the level of principles. It notes they are self-destructive and more often than not are ultimately revealed to be based on defence of leadership status or competing leadership bids. Later, in response to what he considered a mistaken use of the term ‘sectarian’, Trotsky offered the following pertinent description:

“Sectarianism presupposes a narrow, homogeneous group, bound internally by deep and unshakeable conviction, despite the contradictions between this conviction and historical development.” (Trotsky. Writings. 1933-34 Pub. Pathfinder. page 296)

A ‘narrow’ group bound together by an ‘unshakeable conviction’. Such is the clear verdict of Leon Trotsky. It is a verdict which is in line with that of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The volumes of Trotsky’s writings contain a comprehensive insight into the problems caused by the reverses in the international situation right up to and beyond crucial developments in Germany. It was in the 1930’s that the conduct of the German Communist Party, under direction from the Stalin-dominated Comintern, effectively split the opposition to Hitler.

The results of this split removed the possibility of effective and sustained opposition to the development and success of German Fascism. It is precisely during this critical period that Trotsky returned to the subject of sectarianism. Prompted by an article in an American publication called ‘The Marxist’, Trotsky took the author to task for writing – “If the workers carry through…”. Trotsky pointed out that:

“The sectarian is satisfied with logical deduction from a victorious revolution supposedly already achieved. But for a revolutionist the nub of the question lies precisely in how to render an approach to revolution easier for the masses…. “If the workers carry through…” a victorious revolution, everything will of course be fine. But just now there is no victorious revolution; instead there is a victorious reaction.” (Trotsky. Writings 1939-40 Pub. Pathfinder. page 50)

Of course everything had been far from fine after the ‘victorious’ Russian revolution – another blind spot for Trotsky – but Trotsky, and at this point, was still concerned to help anti-capitalist working people negotiate the bridge, the path, the complex road, between where things were then and where they could eventually lead.

Yet this ‘good shepherd’ leading the helpless working class sheep to revolution was already a concept imbued with sectarian characteristics and it was this form of leadership which Trotsky considered essential for those opposed to the capitalist system. Trotsky explained that this was the importance of a Transitional Programme accepted at the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938. However, in relation to that programme he went on to note another characteristics of sectarianism:

“Small wonder that the sectarians of all shadings fail to understand its meaning. They operate by means of abstractions – an abstraction of imperialism and an abstraction of the socialist revolution.” (ibid. page 50/51)

Trotsky had identified a further characteristic which is of the utmost importance. It is the interesting observation that anti-capitalist sectarians are prone to operate by means of abstractions, – “shibboleths and panaceas” in Marx’s terms. Thus, they can fail to understand the meaning of their ‘own programme’. This observation is worth repeating, for it seems unlikely at first reading. Sectarians can actually fail to understand the meaning of their own programme!

Ask most sectarian group members about their detailed programme and then sit back and listen to the subsequent waffle. As we have noted previously, Engels considered they can also turn the anti-capitalist critique of Marx into dogma – and most of them have done so! Trotsky’s observations on these aspects of sectarianism were also in line with Lenin’s warning not to separate or otherwise confuse ‘immediate demands’ from a revolutionary perspective.

The issues and views considered so far have given us sufficient material to begin to understand the problem of sectarianism in some detail. We have noted evidence of Marx and Engels combating sectarianism in Germany, Britain and America in the second half of the 19th century and we have studied a selection of Lenin’s contributions opposing the phenomenon in Russia in the first quarter of the 20th century. We have also indicated that Trotsky found aspects of sectarianism a serious and critical problem in France, Germany, Britain and America in the period 1920-1940. We also know it is alive and well in the 21st century. We would be naive, foolish or both not to give it lengthy and serious consideration.

Roy Ratcliffe (June 2013.)

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