Sectarianism and the Party

If one thing is certain, it is that the only thing Communist parties are more known for than splitting is accusing each other of sectarianism.1 In the ideological and petty rivalry laden environment of Communist politics, whether in the rich countries or in the poor, accusing each other of sectarianism is about as common a vehicle for settling old scores as accusations of embezzlement are for community groups and accusations of ‘ideology’ for centrist parties. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude from this that sectarianism does not exist, or is not legitimately a problem. The mere fact that a country like the United Kingdom, with a very small and weak left wing both politically and numerically, has easily 10-15 different Communist parties and groups should tell us all we need to know about the reality of sectarian divisions.

The easiest way to approach the issue of what sectarianism is and how Communist parties and groups can avoid it is simply by giving a few descriptions of sectarian practices and approaches. The most important and frequent one of these, which is essentially the general structure of all sectarianism, is making excessive ideological criteria for membership or participation in the Communist party involved. We know for a fact that Marx & Engels themselves never in the First International even required members to be ‘Marxists’, let alone to agree with them on every issue of analysis, but this lesson seems to have sadly been forgotten entirely. Members of the International in those days were not just those later described as Marxists, but also left-wing trade unionists, Lassalleans, Proudhonists, Bakuninists (despite Bakunin himself), and even followers of Auguste Comte! Its explicit purpose was to combat the division of the socialists into the many different sects and groupings, even if this meant that the ‘common denominator’ was a fairly thin one, limited to desiring the overthrow of capitalism. It is worth quoting Marx on this point:

“The International was founded in order to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by real organization of the working class for struggle… On the other hand, the International could not have maintained itself if the course of history had not already smashed sectarianism. The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real labor movement always stand in reverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are justified (historically), 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. For all that, what history exhibits everywhere was repeated in the history of the International. What is antiquated tries to reconstitute and assert itself within the newly acquired form.

And the history of the International was a continual struggle of the General Council against the sects and against amateur experiments, which sought to assert themselves within the International against the real movement of the working class.”2

But what do we see in practice today? The exact opposite. Endless numbers of people have been expelled or worked out of Communist parties on the basis of sectarian ideological principles. The only thing a Communist party needs to require of its members is that they support the overthrow of capitalism in whatever way best effects this. All other requirements are necessarily sectarian. It does not matter for Communism, which is after all the “real movement of the working class”, what position a member has on the ‘nature’ of the Soviet Union, on the guilt or innocence of Bukharin, on whether modern art is good or bad, on whether the Asiatic Mode of Production really existed or not, on whether the law of value means this or that, and so forth. All ideological demands of this kind serve only to divide, never to achieve progress. This can be seen by simply asking the question: what if the party leadership, or whoever is pushing the ideological point, were to get its way? If nothing material is changed in the here and now in political terms by even unanimity on a topic, then the topic is a sectarian ideological point. If everyone agreed now that Bukharin was guilty or Bukharin was innocent, this would not change the political state of the world one iota. Therefore, making requirements of this kind is inherently sectarian, and to be rejected.

Also sectarian is an approach which seeks to get people to become socialists of a certain stripe or sect above all else – any approach that attempts to achieve that workers or other socialist-minded people, or people who are desiring a ‘socialist education’, agree with certain programmatic principles or ideological points. Aside from explaining the horror of capitalism, which should be obvious in any case, and from explaining how only socialist revolution can rid us of it, which is a simple point of political logic, the goal in political terms should be to achieve political movement, that is, to get people to act. This can be in terms of activism, voting, organization, military rebellion, resistance, whatever is appropriate and relevant under the circumstances. That is not to say that ideological analysis, essays, and so forth are not useful or important – but their purpose can only ever be to serve as a guide to action, they can never be the goal of the movement. Again, we can quote Karl Marx very fruitfully, when he responded to the Eisenach program of the SPD and its Lassallean influences:

Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If, therefore, it was not possible – and the conditions of the item did not permit it – to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a programme of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the Party movement.3

In other words, the goal is always to achieve political improvement, political progress. Recognition of this does not equal reformism, since there the matter is that the reformists do not understand what political progress is in the final instance, but it does mean that action is better than platforms. Nothing against having platforms, but they may not be an excuse to exclude and reject either political activity or support from outside groups when those are aimed at overthrow of capitalism or creation of socialist relations, in whatever doctrinally flawed form.

What then if there are disagreements over seemingly major topics of political import? The obvious answer to this is not to have the party leadership decide, as this simply means that the position of the leadership prevails over the members and supporters without further debate or ado, which fails our criteria against sectarianism outlined above. Many parties for this reason, calling this approach ‘democratic centralism’, have decided that any programmatic question whatever must be put to a vote of the party congress, and once this vote has been held, it is binding on all members to support and voice it. This, too, is irreparably sectarian, and for several reasons. The first is that empirical evidence shows it does not work: the losing side tends to simply leave the party when they can, and start a doctrinally perfect microparty of their own. The result is that instead of one big party capable of action, we now have two small parties, each with virtually identical political goals, but a different ideological platform. This achieves absolutely nothing and only weakens and divides the Communist movement. Nobody who was not privy to the clash of egos involved will understand why there are now two parties and what it matters, and this will disinvite them from participation in either; and those who have taken part in the split either way will be wrapped up in their damaged egos, and tend to focus more on agitating against the other group than on actually achieving anything. Another reason is that it is utterly unnecessary for all members of a party, let alone its sympathizers and activists, to wholly agree with it on every point, or even every major point. The only demands that can be made, again, are those that are strictly necessary for the purpose of helping overthrow capitalism by political action. Agreement on all topics or even all major topics is not one of these demands.

What can be demanded are those things that enable a party or group to come to an understanding of the political situation at a given moment, the meaning of this in political-economic terms if necessary, and the steps to be taken following from the situation. These demands are: first, that there be as much possibility of open debate of principles as well as pragmatics in how they relate to the issue at hand as can be permitted under the circumstances (that is, if there is a situation of repression of Communist activity by the government, it may be necessary to make this debate take place in a limited form, or in secret, or outside the country, while the activists focus on first achieving the necessary liberties – this was the case in Lenin’s days when he wrote What is to be Done?). This implies also that anyone arguing against a party leadership, member, or position is not penalized for doing so, since this serves only to satisfy the egos of the party leaders involved, and harms the party by depriving it of possibly useful advice. Secondly, it can be demanded that a vote takes place on the issue of what concrete political steps are taken on the basis of the discussion, and only on the concrete political steps taken. Again, nobody is served in any way by having majority votes on questions of history, geography, economics, or any doctrine or ideology whatever, including but not limited to eternal wrangling about ‘true Marxism’ or the nature of the Soviet Union. The only thing that matters is what political moves are undertaken. These are of course themselves based on a certain political and ideological analysis, but by voting only on the practical points rather than the analysis itself, one avoids massive waste of time, bruising of intellectual egos, and ideological dogmatism. And this relates in turn to the third demand that can be made: when a decision is made on the political move to be undertaken, it can be demanded that the members and supporters do not sabotage it. Note that this does not mean that it can be demanded they take part: forcing people to assist moves against their political viewpoint and analysis demoralizes them, it causes friction during and after the political move itself, and they will not perform well. Rather, let the principle be one where those in agreement or willing to suspend disagreement will take part, and the others are only asked to not hinder it, which is simply a principle of comradely comity and having the losers of the vote also set their egos aside. These three demands can be made, and these three only. Even after a vote, a losing side is free to continue in whatever way to promote their viewpoint, as long as they do not materially hinder the acting out of the decision; after all, it may turn out that the majority has reason to reconsider.

How then are disagreements on doctrinal questions to be resolved, since they do always seem so important, and they do shape and construct the ideas on political moves to be made? Here again the answer has all too often been to create splinter parties, to make groups under the banner of perfect party platforms, and so forth. This is not the correct way, as explained above. Also not the correct way is that of so-called ‘entryism’, where an existing movement or group is taken over by others in order to move it. This is the exact opposite of what is desirable, since the point is not to create perfect platforms or even as many groups with perfect platforms as possible, but the goal is to achieve political movement against capitalism. Entryist tactics only destroy and divide existing movements without creating even the slightest impulse for new activity, and for this reason are the other side of the coin of splitting, and equally bad.

Correct is the approach that seeks, as always, to stimulate movement by propounding a particular political point of view or program. This is done not by creating a sectarian party with this as its demand for membership, nor is it done by forcing others to submit their own party to this cause, but this is done by creating a paper, internet website, forum for discussion, journal, newspaper column, or whatever means of communication are appropriate, in which the group that agrees on the platform sets out their views and principles, with the aim of stimulating both existing movements and prior nonactive readers to act on their ideas. In this way of acting, the platform and political views, important as they are, serve the goal of recruiting new socialists and improving the activity of existing ones, rather than serving the goal of creating true believers – in other words, the program serves movement, not the other way round. A good example of this approach done rightly can be seen in Lenin’s journal Iskra, in Marx & Engels’ works in newspapers such as the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the Northern Star, and in our day for example in the work done by the ‘Maoist-Third Worldist’ internet collective “Monkey Smashes Heaven”4, or the attempts at creating an open platform for discussion in the United Kingdom by the Weekly Worker, although few of its contributors can get past sectarian infighting. Those who agree with the platform, or come to agree with its form of socialism after reading it, shall act on it in their own way, and those who disagree will either be able to respond with their own views, or even better, show the correctness of their cause by action. Political action serves as final arbiter of viewpoints, since it shows in practice which views, when acted upon, have which consequences. As mentioned, both within and without official parties it is therefore to be encouraged to hold political discussions through various appropriate fora, without there being any need to penalize disagreement, while all that can be demanded of party leadership and members alike are the three demands mentioned above. If egoism and pettiness, dogmatism and sectarianism are going to be problems, and the risk always exists in any political party (including those of the center and right), then that should be worked on by the members of the party among themselves, not just so an atmosphere of real comradeship may prevail, but also in the interests of the Communist movement itself. Remember: Communism is a movement, not a party. It works towards a political goal, not toward satisfying individual egos. It is the working class and its supporters recognizing their goals and acting towards it, it is not an infallible metaphysical system on all questions historical, philosophical, scientific and aesthetic.

1. This article is partially based on Hal Draper’s excellent article on the same topic. See: Hal Draper, “Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road” (1971). . ->
2. Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Bolte (November 23, 1871). ->
3. Karl Marx, Letter to W. Bracke (May 5, 1875). ->
4. .->


I take issue with a number of the points you raise here.

First, Communist parties are exceptionally prone to splitting and sectarianism only in the first world, where Communism has no mass base and therefore ends up being little more, at best, than an intellectual hobby for a few people. One small British Communist Party-Unified Front would advance the cause of global Communism no more than a dozen tiny ones do as-is. I see no evidence that Communist Parties in poor countries are any more or less prone to counterproductive infighting, egotist leadership, or any other sort of political bone-headedness than parties of other ideologies. In fact, third world Communists in peaceful circumstances tend to be extraordinarily accommodating; if anything I think they are TOO accepting of compromise and “small steps.”

Second, the statement, “The only thing a Communist party needs to require of its members is that they support the overthrow of capitalism in whatever way best effects this,” is more-or-less true but basically unhelpful because it begs the enormous question of knowledge whether someone does in fact support the overthrow of capitalism. Should Communists open their arms to Dengists, for example? After all, their ideology claims to be the only route to the eventual realization of communism. By your principles here I can only surmise that we should sweep away “petty” ideological differences and march arm-in-arm.

Serious (i.e., third world) Communist parties have always been and continue to be beset unceasingly by pretenders and wolves-in-sheep’s clothing who wrap themselves in the red flag only to dismantle Communist progress and uphold dictatorship of the bourgeoisie whenever their chance comes. Ideological tests and so on are a means of finding out whether people do actually support the overthrow of capitalism! Sometimes they are stereotypical – for example, someone might conceivably be an actual Communist and yet have bourgeois views regarding Communist history. But such a case is extremely rare compared to fakes, who are either delusional (think they wish to overthrow capitalism when really they do not), or deliberate saboteurs.

I don’t think your criticism is quite right. First of all, Third World parties split just as much; just look at India or Nepal.

As for the second point, you miss my point entirely – the issue is exactly NOT to “sweep away petty ideological differences”, but to fight them out in debate. It should not be hard to show to Dengists how their tactic will tend to favor capitalism and revival of exploitative social relations. Moreover, it should especially not be difficult to show this to the workers in general. If they would then still support the Dengists, it would be time to consider why that would be, and you would have to re-do your analysis. This is what makes socialism ‘scientific’.

This section of the first posters’ comments:

“Ideological tests and so on are a means of finding out whether people do actually support the overthrow of capitalism! Sometimes they are stereotypical – for example, someone might conceivably be an actual Communist and yet have bourgeois views regarding Communist history. But such a case is extremely rare compared to fakes, who are either delusional (think they wish to overthrow capitalism when really they do not), or deliberate saboteurs.”

…sounds like the kind of “I want to be an inquisitor and expel the unbelievers” argument that perpetually afflicts the communist movement. Fanaticism and Sectarianism will not disappear until this attitude does.

How many different sects would say the exact same thing about another sect? Of course, the only response is, “But NO, I *really* *really* support the overthrow of capitalism, and *you’re* the saboteur/delusional one.”

And then every side shakes its head at every other side and nothing happens.

In the US there was a lack of theory. It flowed from the pragmatism of socialists who were good trade unionists and organizers, but not Marxist theoreticians. Differences were dealt with bureaucratically.

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