A Note On Sectarianism

frenchnationalconventionRecently I have been thinking and talking with friends a lot about sectarianism on the left. What is it, how does it manifest itself and what are its impacts on the left and larger movements for social change?

There have been some concrete reasons why this topic has come up, one is the debate about the CFS in Anglo-Canada that popped up this fall, another has been the election at my union local, CUPE 3903, and lastly the seeming depreciation of the organized left in Toronto.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of these subjects, rather just note they have spurred my recent thinking on the topic. And to be fair this has been something that a number of my comrades inside and outside of Solidarity Halifax (I am currently not a member due to geography) have been grappling with for years. When that organization was coming into being it was explicitly conceived of as non-sectarian. The years before that organization formed had been ones of a low level of struggle and acrimonious relationships between various sections of the left in that city. At one point some lefties put up posters denouncing the local labour council as labour bureaucrats (the Halifax Dartmouth District Labour Council is probably the most progressive labour council in the country, their slogan is “capitalism isn’t working for workers”). These types of armchair denunciations were only possible when all our movements were incredibly weak. There is a certain safety in critique, especially when that critique locates problems with the poor leadership of others.

Thus, Solidarity Halifax was conceived of as an anti-capitalist organization that aimed to build movements and relationships between activists. We wanted to develop a shared politics through practice rather than continually tear each other down. We thought, I think correctly, we should focus on our commonalities – our shared anti-capitalist beliefs – rather than focus on our differences.

However, before I get too warm and fuzzy about this I should make clear that we shouldn’t be afraid of or eschew political difference in the name of unity. As an older comrade of mine is fond of saying, “this just can’t be a ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’ conversation.” Political debate, difference and even conflict should be welcome. There has to be conflict within unity, it is the only way we can learn and grow as activists. But how this is done, well that is at the heart of good political practice. I will return to this in a moment, but first I should clarify what I mean by sectarianism.

Sectarianism and working class movements

Two friends of mine recently pointed that among other things sectarianism can be thought of as a position both in theory and in practice as in opposition to actual class movements. Karl Marx in an 1868 letter to Jean Baptista von Schweitzer, a German Social-Democrat, stated:

“You yourself have experienced in your own person the opposition between the movement of a sect and the movement of a class. The sect sees the justification for its existence 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 it….”
“Where the true content of the sect was concerned it would, as with all previous working-class sects, be carried on into the general movement as an element which enriched it. Instead of this you actually demanded of the class movement that it should subordinate itself to the movement of a particular sect.” 

Marx here brings up an important point, that sectarianism should be understood as a relation to broader working class movements. Sectarianism is the theory and practice of seeking to mold actually existing class movements into the rigid conceptions of what a particular sect thinks those movements should be. This conception is something that Marx and Engels had written about earlier in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 when stated, “They (communists) have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.”

Now just because Marx said something does not make it right. The point is that Marx and Engels bring up an important way of understanding sectarianism. Class struggle and political practice is an art and no rigid formula will work. In different times and places how class movements manifest themselves will vary greatly, the point of political organizations is to orient themselves towards those movements in a way that enriches them, not in a way that tries control them, denounce them or split them.

As a former union organizer one of the major things I dealt with was the uneven political analysis that most people had. This shouldn’t be surprising as the daily grind of capitalism breeds distortions and uneven political expressions. Workers, for instance, can be quite on point about the problems of corporate power, but also worry insistently about the solvency of their employer’s company. I have witnessed workers who use homophobic language take firm stances against the queerbaiting by the boss in their workplace. The uneven development of political consciousness means that people’s politics in practice can often be far in advanced of how they express those ideas. Living in a capitalist society means workers carry a multitude of contradictions, some of which get expressed within and by working class organizations. Sectarian attitudes of the left that overlook this distinction between deeds and ideas results in abandoning working class organizations and people because they do not fit their preconceived expectation. Political ideas do not fall from the sky but are developed over time through struggle and struggle my friends is messy.

I always think that those of us who are commies or socialists or radicals should also be humble in our work. We should be unwavering about drawing the links between different struggles and understanding the longer term political movement, while participating in movements in a fruitful and earnest manner. This is a two way street, class movements (I am using this term very broadly) have much to teach radicals about political struggle.

I would argue that many on the radical left have sectarian theories and practices towards existing class movements. For instance, the fight against Tim Hudak’s right to work agenda in Ontario is dismissed by some of the radical left as inherently reformist and labour bureaucrats out to save their own skin. In other words it can only result in an Anything But Conservative (ABC) movement. This is about as right as King Solomon’s judgment about splitting the baby in half. It is abstractly right, but totally screwed up in reality. Yes, it could devolve into an ABC campaign, but the point is to get in there and try to influence it in a positive direction and build relationships in the process. This is where the class is.

The labour bureaucracy

Part of the hostility many on the left have towards working class organizations such as unions rests upon a critique of the labour bureaucracy. Now there can be no arguing that there is a huge problem in the union movement that is structural. Many unions are dead from the neck down and the top layers of leadership are unable or unwilling to do much about it. If we are simply to explain this state of affairs as the product of labour bureaucracy, rather than a series of historical defeats and disorganization of the left and working class we are left with a sectarian attitude towards the largest class organizations in Canadian society. Yes, the trade union movement requires an overhaul of practices and yes we need to build a fighting workers movement and the labour bureaucracy presents a series of internal challenges to this. However, if we simply talk about the labour bureaucracy in the abstract we will inevitably trip up when try to engage productively in class struggle within the unions.

Let’s imagine that the trade union movement is a rubber band, the more it is stretched the more militant it is as a fighting force for the whole class. Now imagine the labour bureaucracy is a hole in that rubber band. When the band is stretched out the hole becomes bigger and the weakness and vacillating nature of layers of the trade union bureaucracy becomes the most apparent. However, when class struggle is at a lower level the band is less stretched and the hole shrinks somewhat, those weaknesses and tensions become less apparent and less important. This is not to say they don’t cause barriers in rebuilding the trade union movement rather these tensions are either less immediate or are problems with different effects. We must situate our analysis in a wider political terrain that takes into consideration the strategic implications of our orientation. We should be focusing on expanding rank-and-file activity ourselves (stretching the band), not complaining or expecting those at the top of the movement to conjure up a militant labour movement from above.

We have to demand a more nuanced and actionable analysis of what we mean by labour bureaucracy from ourselves. Who is a labour bureaucrat? Are local presidents and those on executives bureaucrats? Are labour councils parts of the bureaucracy? If so what parts? What does the bureaucracy look like in different regions and different unions? Is there a difference between one element of the bureaucracy and another? Is it better to have Sid Ryan as the head of OFL or Smokey Thomas, or does it not matter at all? Do certain elements of the bureaucracy have an interest in building the self-activity of workers? If so, why? If not, why not? The point I am getting at is, if we don’t have a concrete analysis of these kinds of questions they can easily lead to sectarian attitudes. I am frankly quite bored and frustrated with the stale analysis of social democrats and labour bureaucrats as sell-outs. I mean yeah, thanks captain obvious, social democracy and the labour aristocracy will not bring forth a social revolution. But that doesn’t help us explain our current predicament and what to do about it.

Sectarianism towards other lefties

The second form of sectarianism is that which is intra lefty sectarianism. This is where leftists denounce each other for some political difference or another. Sometimes, this can be warranted when the left splits over relevant political questions of the day. So way back when the second international split over the first world war, it was correct to carry a sectarian view of those leftwing parties which actively supported their national governments during the war. However, most of the current sectarianism that pervades the Canadian left revolves around fairly minute and petty differences, purposeful mischaracterization of political positions and motivations, personality clashes, and a drive to stake out a position that proves one’s radicalness through declaration.

“You say strike, I say GENERAL strike. You say 14 dollars an hour, I say 20 dollars an hour. You are obviously reformist scum, bent on career advancement.”

quote-in-general-if-signs-of-sectarianism-do-appear-in-a-socialist-party-these-are-only-the-products-of-karl-radek-150369This type of sectarianism is not confined to the squabbles between political organizations. Non-affiliated lefties in a way can be just as sectarian, sometime even more so, towards other lefties and larger class movements than those in political organizations. Sectarian attitudes and practices in movements have the real effect of turning away many new folks who may be interested in more radical political positions. It also makes it much harder to engage in real united front work. Some of us are so focused on our political differences that we can’t see that we may share a political orientation that is in 98 percent agreement. We should be open with our political differences and realistic about where and when we can do work together. For instance, I would say that my ability to find a common long-term strategy with some anarchists is probably pretty slim as our differences over how we would navigate the terrain of the state are too wide. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t or shouldn’t work with those same folks on other projects. The point is we need to situate our organizing tasks within the current political landscape. Our political differences when the left is so weak are a little less relevant than when the left would be close to power. The irony is that sectarian practices are usually the worst at low levels of class struggle precisely because lefties begin to justify their existence by abstract positions made in the absence of actual political struggle.  You can’t disprove what you can’t test.

The way out of this conundrum, I think, involves three gestures. The first is that we need to consistently focus our efforts towards our right, not left. We need orient to where working class movements are, rather than where we think they should be. This isn’t to say we should not debate these practices and analyses on the left, rather that those debates should be secondary to (indeed would be made better by) a more stringent focus on the actual existing working class. Secondly we need to challenge ourselves in how we behave towards each other. This is difficult, because it involves patience and a willingness to have an open and honest exchange of ideas and the understanding of correct expectations (also a willingness to be open to being wrong). Some lefties you will never win over to your position and that is ok. Thirdly, we need to have a realistic and nuanced understanding of labour bureaucracy and social democracy. This means understanding where real social change comes from and developing a critique that is not a complaint. We have to have a real actionable strategy that moves beyond moralism.

One thing I have learned from all my years of organizing is this, that organizing at its very core is about real human relationships based on mutual respect and trust. To be a good organizer is to be open about your opinion and how you arrived at it and to have a willingness to listen and learn and adjust your thinking. If we can’t do that, than we can never do anything.


Further Reading 

What is trade union bureaucracy? A theoretical account by David Camfield

Sectarianism by Duncan Hallas

Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Letter from Marx to Schweitzer in Berlin by Karl Marx


One response to “A Note On Sectarianism

  1. I think the definition of sectarianism is when you put the interests of your group ahead of the movement. Different groups exist because of different (or nuanced) analysis of this stage of the struggle or that emphasis on tactics. But to get beyond sectarianism, we must put the movement ahead of all else.

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