What is sectarianism?

This essay by Duncan Hallas is from a collection of "What do we mean by..." articles and was published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) in Education for Socialists No. 6 in March 1987. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive.

Marxist Classics

THE TERM sectarianism is used so loosely that it may be as well to start by clarifying what it does not mean. It is sometimes asserted that it is sectarian to try to build your own organization in the course of intervention in various struggles. This is nonsense. If you believe that your organization's politics are correct, or at least more correct than those of others, you will naturally want it to grow and will try to build it. Otherwise, you are not politically serious.

Of course, this may sometimes be attempted in an arrogant or insensitive fashion (not, I hope, by SWP members, or not very often), but that is not so much sectarianism as stupidity.

Sectarianism refers exclusively to erroneous attitudes to the class struggle.

"By directing socialism towards a fusion with the working class movement," wrote Lenin, "Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did their greatest service: they created a revolutionary theory that explained the necessity for this fusion and gave socialists the task of organizing the class struggle of the proletariat."

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Fusion, in this context, does not mean the dissolution of a revolutionary organization into a non-revolutionary one. Lenin was totally committed to building a revolutionary organization and broke ruthlessly with those, including many of his former collaborators, who wavered on this central point. The key words are "the class struggle of the proletariat." It is with this that socialists must "fuse."

The notion goes back to the Communist Manifesto. Sectarians, for Marx and Engels, were those who created "utopias," abstract schemes derived from supposed general principles, to which people were to be won by persuasion and example--co-operative "islands of socialism" and suchlike--as opposed to the Marxist emphasis on the real movement', the actual class struggle.

It was with this in mind that Marx wrote: "The sect sees the justification for its existence and its point of honor not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement." (The emphasis is Marx's own.)

Class movement is meant literally. It is not a matter, or not primarily a matter, of this or that working class institution but of the course of development of the real class struggle and the development of class consciousness. Marx was a revolutionary. For him revolution was not a "particular shibboleth", but a necessary stage in the struggle for socialism which, in turn, can only be based on the class struggle, regardless, as he wrote, of "what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers as its aim".

However, sectarianism is not necessarily avoided by formal acceptance of the centrality of the class struggle. As early as the 1880s Engels was ridiculing the German Marxist emigrés in the USA for turning Marxism into "a kind of 'only-salvation' dogma and [keeping] aloof from any movement which did not accept that dogma". Engels had in mind the Knights of Labour, a considerable, although confused, attempt at working class organization, which, he argued (vainly, as far as the German-American Marxists were concerned) "ought not to be pooh-poohed from without but revolutionized from within".

The argument applies generally. So, in the early years of the Communist International, a good number of genuine revolutionaries, mainly in Germany but not only there, were opposed to systematic work in the existing unions. Their argument was that these unions were bureaucratized and conservative, if not downright reactionary. It was broadly true. It was also true that these unions organized millions of workers and, however bureaucratized and reactionary their leadership, they were class organizations which necessarily played a role (a bad one) in the class struggle and could not simply be bypassed. As Lenin wrote:

We are waging the struggle against the opportunist and social-chauvinist leaders in order to win the working class over to our side. It would be absurd to forget this most elementary and most self-evident truth. Yet this is the very absurdity that the German "Left Communists" perpetrate when, because of the reactionary and counterrevolutionary character of the trade unions' top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that--we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them, and create new and artificial forms of labor organization! This is so unpardonable a blunder that it is tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie.

The common thread between this mistake by the (for the most part) active and revolutionary "lefts" and all other forms of sectarianism is failure to relate to the concrete struggles of workers, however difficult it may be to do so, and to set up utopian schemes as alternatives.

Thus, the propagandistic forms of sectarianism, very different at first sight, have this same root. There is a rich (if that is the appropriate word) experience of this in Britain. We may call them "the pure selected few" sectarians after a verse by the late Tommy Jackson, referring to the British Socialist Labour Party:

We are the pure selected few
And all the rest are damned
There's room enough in hell for you
We don't want heaven crammed

The SLP, although by no means the worst of its kind, placed excessive emphasis on propaganda and a very high level of formal (Marxist) training as a condition of membership. Not so surprisingly, it also believed in separate "red unions" and had a rule forbidding members to hold union office, although they were allowed to be card holders where "job necessity" (that is, the closed shop) required it.

An obsession with "high quality" members, and fear of "dilution" by "raw workers" also came to characterize some of the Trotskyist groups (though not all) and their offshoots. Why is this attitude sectarian? Again we come back to the class struggle as the heart of the matter. And that cuts both ways.

As Trotsky himself wrote: "Coming from the opportunists the accusation of sectarianism is most often a compliment." True enough, but this in no way alters the fact that sectarian deviations can be a real danger. Trotsky explained the emergence of sectarianism amongst some of his followers by the circumstances of their origin.

Every working class party, every faction, during its initial stages, passes through a period of pure propaganda...The period of existence as a Marxist circle invariably grafts habits of an abstract approach onto the workers' movement. Whoever is unable to step in time over the confines of this circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian. The sectarian looks upon life as a great school with himself as a teacher there...Though he may swear by Marxism in every sentence the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it...The sectarian lives in a sphere of ready-made formulae...Discord with reality engenders in the sectarian the need to constantly render his formula more precise. This goes under the name of discussion. To a Marxist. discussion is an important but functional instrument of the class struggle. To the sectarian discussion is a goal in itself. However, the more he discusses, the more the actual tasks escape him. He is like a man who satisfies his thirst with salt water; the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes.

Fortunately, this variety of sectarianism is less common now than it was even a few years ago. many of the erstwhile sectarians of this stamp having been absorbed by the Labour Party.

But doesn't everything that has been said point to the conclusion that revolutionaries ought to intervene in the Labour Party and, to do so more effectively, join it? Isn't it sectarian, as Militant argue, to stay outside?

Certainly the question cannot be solved by ready-made formulae. The essence of sectarianism is abstentionism, on whatever pretext, from the actual class struggle. Does the class struggle take place, mainly or partly, in or through the Labour Party? Obviously it does not take place directly in the Labour Party. And so far as there is a certain feedback from inner Labour Party struggles, we must seek to influence them--by supporting the left, critically where need be, but still supporting them, against the right.

However, it is not at all the same thing as saying that the SWP ought to dissolve itself into the Labour Party (or to appear to do so whilst secretly maintaining its own organization). There are three reasons why this would be wrong.

First, the main struggle is in the workplaces and, secondarily, in the unions. A revolutionary organization must, if at all possible, be organized so as to most effectively intervene in them, with its own publication and open presence. There is a qualitative difference between the unions, which organize on a job or industry basis, and the Labour Party which is based on a political idea--reformism, which we reject. And this remains true no matter how reformist or reactionary the union leaders are. Thus, Lenin, in the article quoted above, did not dream of arguing that his supporters should join the Social Democratic Party, although most of the union leaders were Social Democrats.

Secondly. even when the struggle in the workplaces is at a very low ebb, it is still the case that to stand aside from all involvement in the unions would be sectarian. At the lowest points of struggle they retain an organic, even if distant, connection to the class struggle. The Labour Party wards are not remotely comparable in this case.

Thirdly, precisely from the point of view of influencing left-wingers in the Labour Party, revolutionary socialists are far better placed as an open organization arguing our political ideas because we are not involved in conflicts over positions, the selection of candidates, and such like.