Anarchism in Interesting Times
Left sectarianism is a charge that is regularly thrown about without being understood. It’s often applied in any case where left wing activists won’t just agree and get along. This usage is unhelpful and obscures the real meaning of the term, which describes a real recurring problem within the radical left milieu. Before defining sectarianism in class and anti-oppression politics, I’d like to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding the term.
Sectarianism is not me having a heated argument with a Marxist on the internet; it is not an anarchist organisation criticising a Marxist group’s conduct during a campaign; it is not one Trotskyist group criticising another on a point of program or tactics, and it is definitely not abstaining from criticising liberal tactics for the sake of ‘unity’ while fighting fascism. No, all of these things are usually healthy expressions of political debate that can help develop tactics and program. If you apply the same logic to society at large, that disagreement is bad and should be avoided for the sake of unity, you’ve pretty much arrived at Fascism. I shouldn’t need to say this, but, for the sake of clarity, I am not calling people who call for left unity at all costs Fascist. Just misguided.
If the whole left united and refrained from critiquing each other, what would that amount to? It would mean a bland monolithic entity whose politics took the line of its least radical element every time. It would mean refraining from direct action, it would mean electoralism, it would mean debating fascists at liberal university society events instead of blocking them from speaking and smashing their organisations. And, something that has happened over and over in campaigns here in Ireland, it would mean anarchists and other extra-parliamentary groups doing huge amounts of groundwork in campaigns only for electoralists to cash in on that work and use it in their attempts to win seats in parliament – for those of us who have contributed our time and efforts to such a campaign, that amounts to alienated labour.
So then, what is sectarianism in a political context? What characterises it is closely related to the concept of the sect, which the Marxist, Hal Draper wrote in Anatomy of the Micro-sect , was
best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves. The approach pointed by Marx was different: without giving up or concealing one’s own programmatic politics in the slightest degree, the real Marxist (and Anarchist! My addition) looks to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action – into movement against the established powers of the system (state and bourgeoisie and their agents, including their labor lieutenants inside the workers’ movement). And for Marx, it is this reality of social (class) collision which will work to elevate the class’s consciousness to the level of the socialist movement’s program.
To move a fighting sector of the class into action against the established powers by only a step is more important than “a thousand programs,” Marx and Engels used to reiterate, and there’s no use denouncing them for deprecating programmatic politics. To the sect mind, their approach is utterly incomprehensible. For over a century now, we have seen the two touchstone; and the difference is as glaring nowadays as it ever was. The most important test has always been the relationship of the self-styled Marxist and the working class organized on the elementary economic level, i.e., the trade-union movement. (The test is all the more decisive in the United States where, unfortunately, the trade-union movement is the only class movement of the workers in existence.)
Taking that and applying it our subject matter, we conclude that sectarianism is when “conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths”, is prioritised over looking “to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action.” Examples of this include socialists trying to shoe horn an electoral challenge into a grass roots community driven campaigns in order to further their own interests regardless of the danger of wrecking the campaign; opposition by ‘manarchists’ or ‘brocialists’ to identity politics – which has the potential to grow class consciousness when opposed by the forces of capital and the state; telling women, LGBT folk and people of colour to keep their demands on the down low so they don’t scare anyone off, and repeatedly turning up at public meetings with the sole purpose of denouncing someone over a point of program – see the Sparts (pictured).
A healthy radical left does not discourage debate, it does not hide differences behind joint banners and it does not claim infallibility of its program. As Goethe once remarked, “All theory, dear friend, is grey, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.” A theory that is not tested in the streets, the workplaces, and communities, is a theory that is not worth clinging to and doing that rather than engage with the exploited and oppressed in their confrontations with authority is sectarianism.
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