There has long been a phenomenon within struggles for unity against ruling elites which is the intellectual equivalent of cancer in the human body. It attacks individual units of struggle and breaks down internal group solidarity. The phenomenon is called sectarianism. It is derived from the examples of small religious (and political) groupings known as ‘sects’. Nevertheless, it is not a group which determines the existence of sectarian characteristics, but the existence of sectarian characteristics which determine the nature of a group. The characteristics (outlined in the following section) can also exist in single individuals as well as multiples
First some general points. Members of a sect are primarily preoccupied with external and internal issues. External issues concern problematic economic or political relationships within a given society, which members seek to solve or escape. Internal concerns generally orbit around group leadership and group cohesion. Cohesion is maintained by adherence to a particular set of ideas and practices.
Leadership in such sects is gained by those who convince group members (either democratically or forcibly) that he or she is the best representative of the sects ideas and practices. However, it is the numerous characteristics of sectarianism that are important to understand not who they emanate from. If the following characteristics are identified then whoever personifies them will be the carrier of this fatal disease.
The characteristics of sectarianism.
1. Sectarians claim only they have the correct solution or answer to any problems the movement faces. This claim can be in the form of a doctrine, a set of principles or through special insights and abilities.
2. The reason the sect exists as a separate entity, is because it’s leaders and members consider themselves superior (in some self-identified way) to the general movement they seek to influence and lead.
3. Sectarians have an unshakeable belief in their abilities despite any obvious particular failures and shortcomings they demonstrate in practice.
4. Sectarians can (and do) carry out serious internal or external struggles against rival sects or rival leaders within their own sect.
5. Sectarians often elevate trivialities to the level of principles in order to create disputes between rivals and then create splits within movements.
6. Sectarians frequently call for unity but only unity around their own ideas, practices or leadership.
7. Sectarians frequently distort the positions and efforts of others with whom they disagree. In this way they ‘poison’ any efforts at constructive discussions.
8. Sectarians are often boastful about their own abilities, whilst disrespectful and bitter in relationship to those who differ.
9. Sectarians generally use intellectual abstractions and logical deductions to ‘win’ arguments which bear little or no relationship to immediate reality.
10. Sectarians often explicitly demand that everyone subordinate their thinking and activity to those ideas promoted by them or their sect.
It is obvious that the above characteristics are manifestations of individual and collective forms of supposed superiority over the rest of humanity (point 2 above) The ten characteristics can be used to assess the sectarian nature of any individual religious or political leader of whatever denomination or political persuasion.
Within left-wing politics, sectarians are in many ways, mirror images of the alleged superiority of right-wing elites. They represent micro-sect elites who are ambitious to become national or international leaders. Hence, the phenomena of small group sectarians, after being promoted to power in various ways, becoming new ruling elites. (eg. Bolsheviks, Nazi’s, Maoists, Islamists, Zionists, ANC etc.) Conversely, if sectarians fail to dominate movements, they invariably atrophy slowly or destroy themselves quickly. (eg. WRP, IMG, CP, WF, BP, etc.).
It is rare for all ten characteristics to be displayed at any one time, but any single one of the above characteristics may be enough to start the destructive invasion.
Because, the capitalist mode of production exploits and oppresses the mass of people for the benefit of the few, the oppressed majority are extremely diverse. On the global scale, the mass of humanity dominated by capitalism, comprise of different cultures, genders, ages, skin colours and sexual orientations. To imagine that such diversity does not create a variety of needs and ways of thinking is to ignore both logic and reality. Yet that is exactly what sectarians do when telling everyone what they must (their favourite word) do.
They imagine that such human diversity can be consolidated behind a set of ideas produced by such self-promoted sectarian elites. However, that is a fantasy equal to that of imagining a male super-being occupying a beneficial heaven and patiently awaiting our final ascent. Neither scenario is going to happen. Any movement wishing to seriously challenge the power of a united and powerful elite to negatively determine what happens to the rest of us will need to unite around not just one form of oppression – no matter how abusive that is – but around multiple issues of oppression and abuse.
Like elites of all historical periods, sectarians also imagine that working people need leadership (their leadership) to be able to challenge existing elites and to create productive communities. In sectarian ideology, real-world socio-economic reality is inverted. In fact it is leaders which need workers to support them economically and socially. Without workers producing goods and services, elites could not survive.
Workers may need co-ordination for many economic activities, but they can do that for themselves. However, given their lengthy economic, social and intellectual subordination to the dominant class, working people, need to challenge the false ideas of human superiority and inferiority. In particular, those ideas which are embodied within the ideologies of religion, racism, sexism and nationalism.
Those who have already done so for themselves can help facilitate the challenging of these pro – capitalist ideologies by working people, but only if they have done so thoroughly. Criticism and self-criticism of methods and evidence is important in this regard. It is easy to criticise obvious surface symptoms, but without a thoroughgoing criticism of underlying systemic causes, that criticism leaves the capitalist system as a whole unchallenged and intact.
Roy Ratcliffe (July 2020)
[The above is a precis of a fuller analysis of anti-capitalist sectarianism along with a history of many of its international expressions in the 20th century, in the book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-Capitalist Struggle’. RR]