Sectarianism or The Truth Will Set You Free: “What’s Left?” May 2017, MRR #408

It’s a classic picture; an iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro addressing an unseen crowd, flanked by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Three handsome Latin men in the ultimate romantic revolutionary photo op. Within ten months of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in January, 1959, Cienfuegos died under somewhat mysterious circumstances amid rumors that Castro had him eliminated because he was too popular. And nearly nine years later, Che was hunted down and killed in the jungles of Bolivia under CIA direction, having been reluctant to return to Cuba after Castro made public Guevara’s secret “farewell letter” surrounded by rumors of a falling out between the two.

With Fidel’s death in November of last year, the top three leaders of the Cuban Revolution are now all dead. Fidel continued to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum until a few months before his demise at 90 years of age. Supporters of the Cuban revolution considered this symbolic of the resiliency of the socialist project while its enemies of its doddering senility. But this isn’t yet another case of Schrödinger’s cats and quantum simultaneity. Marxism and the Left are definitely on the ropes. This month I’ll discuss the first of a handful of principal issues troubling the Left, without much hope of transcending any of them.


Sectarianism figures as the most overt and persistent problem on the Left. The term originally refers to religious conflicts where it was important to establish that you had a direct line to the almighty, and therefore a need to refute, persecute, or even kill anyone who disputed your claim. The idea here is that you and your group of fellow believers have the truth and those who disagree should be subject to everything from scorn and contempt to terror and death because they’re wrong. The claim to religious truth covers not just major differences like the nature of god (one indivisible vs three-in-one vs multiple, transcendent vs imminent) but also to minor matters like whether to make the sign of the cross with two vs three fingers or to baptize by dunking an individual’s head first vs feet first.

But religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on claims to the truth. Politics rivals religion in the acrimony it often generates, and ranks with money and sex as one of the top four topics that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. Political sectarians certainly parallel their religious counterparts in emphasizing the absolute truth of their principles over all others, making every minor disagreement into the basis for fundamental differences, seeing the deadliest of enemies in their closest rivals, putting purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refusing to compromise or alter their aims, and proclaiming their pride at being against the stream. To be fair, real differences do exist between groups and within organizations. Anarchists and Marxists differ fundamentally on the nature and use of state power (dominant autonomous institution to be smashed vs instrumentality of class rule to be seized). Social democrats and Leninists disagree essentially on the organization and role of the political party (mass democratic party vs vanguard party). Given such fundamental differences, political conflicts and opposition are bound to occur when a common action or program is undertaken. But it’s important to define those differences that actually make a difference instead of always seeing fundamental differences where none exist.

On the Left, Marxism exacerbates the problem of sectarianism because of what Frederich Engels called the “theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism.” It is unclear whether Karl Marx himself had such a rigid understanding of his doctrine. While he concurred with Engels in differentiating his socialism from the utopianism of prior socialist thinkers, Marx was by no means as crude or mechanistic in its application to the world of his day. What’s more, Marx valued the correctness of his doctrine’s methodology far more than he did the correctness of its conclusions. Science is based on statements of fact like “1 + 1 = 2,” and so to claim that “1 + 1 = 3” for instance is not just wrong, it’s unscientific. If socialism is a scientific doctrine, then statements by Marxist organization A that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively anti-imperialist” are considered scientific fact. But what if Marxist organization B proclaims that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively counterrevolutionary?” Just as 1 + 1 cannot be simultaneously 2 and 3, Assad’s regime in Syria cannot be simultaneously objectively anti-imperialist and counterrevolutionary. Since both Marxist organizations A and B each claim to rely on scientific socialism to arrive at their contradictory conclusions, at least one of these statements must be objectively false.

Aside from the quantum physics fringe, science just doesn’t work that way. Neither political formulation may be right, but someone certainly must be wrong; a sentiment that fuels the sectarian urge.

For Engels, the term scientific essentially meant dialectic. There is much debate about whether Marx subscribed wholeheartedly to Hegelian dialectics, or if his methodology was more complex. Whatever the case, subsequent Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao considered Marxism to be fundamentally dialectical. And Mao entertained an open notion of dialectics where contradictions endlessly self-generated until certain contradictions were considered eternal. “Does ‘one divide into two’ or ‘two fuse into one?’ This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.” (Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964) This is also a conception of the world as endless split and schism, of sectarianism run amok. Little wonder that the Maoist New Communist Movement in the United States at its height in the 1970s rivaled Trotskyism for ever-proliferating, constantly infighting groupuscules. It’s no coincidence that Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian,” with its clever skit of the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, came out in 1979.

The “one divide into two” quote came from a pamphlet called “The Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives” which first appeared in 1970-71. It was called a “moldy soup of McLuhanism, anarchism, William Burroughs, Maoism, and ‘situationism’.” The real Situationists of “Contradiction” called out the fake “situationists” of “Anti-Mass” for taking “a firm, principled position within the spectacle, titillating jaded movement post-graduates with neo-Maoist homilies and Madison Avenue salesmanship.”

And so it went. Trotskyism, Maoism, and Situationism were perhaps the most sectarian tendencies on the Left, but Leftist sectarianism was by no means confined to them. With the defeat of the labor movement and the collapse of Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, we’ve come to a crisis of Marxism specifically and of the Left in general.

Increasingly marginalized revolutionaries sought to break with the senescent Left after 1991 and proffered innovations to its theory and politics in order to salvage what they could of Marxism. In the twenty-first century, this has amounted to rearguard discussions of insurrectionism, communization, Agamben, and social war. To quote Benjamin Noys, the “mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, post-autonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste” is what can be called today’s Social War tendency. In retreat and lacking agency, visions narrow. Revolution becomes insurrection. Communism becomes communizing. The amorphous eclecticism of the Social War tendency offers not “a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication” according to Donald Parkinson. In other words, more bad politics. And part of that bad politics is sectarianism. Witness the incessant political bickering between Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Communiste for starters, which no doubt sounds much more elegant in French.

Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to “The Golden Notebook”: “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.” Perhaps sectarianism on the Left is inevitable as Lessing suggests. It can be contained and controlled however, something that is necessary to promote solidarity.

As a postscript, it is claimed that opportunism is the opposite of sectarianism because opportunists readily adapt their principles to circumstances, minimize the significance of internal disputes, consider even enemies as “the lesser evil,” place tactical advantage over adherence to principles, willingly compromise, and gladly follow the mainstream. Whereas sectarians adamantly insist on their uniqueness, purity, and autonomy, opportunists willingly give up all three. Sectarianism insists on an uncompromising identity while opportunism readily dissolves itself into the greater movement. So while sectarians remain a constant pain-in-the-ass as long as they exist, opportunists happily sell out and fade away. Thus the problem of sectarianism persists while the problem of opportunism takes care of itself by simply evaporating.

Spain Rodriguez, RIP: “What’s Left?” February 2013, MRR #357

The funny pages. That’s what we called the comics section of the newspaper in our family when I was growing up. Especially the full color Sunday comics.

My dad would spread out the Sunday comics on the living room floor and read them to my sister and me. Peanuts, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley. My parents claimed that I learned to read well before attending school by listening to my dad read the comics and following along in the paper. I gained an abiding love of all forms of graphic material from this early childhood experience. And my parents were happy to let me read anything and everything, so long as I read. I might have a copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago next to a stack of Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp Tarzan paperbacks and a pile of Magnus, Robot Fighter, 4000 AD comics, drawn by Russ Manning, on my cluttered desk. That’s when I was in sixth grade.

By high school, and in addition to my homework, my dad was giving me Romain Gary novels and Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry to read. I was devouring everything science fiction, from Robert Heinlein to Andre Norton. I was also delving into pacifist literature, lots of Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, plus the political classics of left anarchism. Then there were the underground newspapers of the day. The LA Free Press, The Oracle, and The Berkeley Barb. Last, but by no means least, there were the underground comics. Initiated by R. Crumb’s Zap Comix #1, the stable of underground artists I followed included S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Spain Rodriguez.

Which brings me to this column’s jumping off point. Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez died this November 28, 2012, at 72. The year 2012 has been a rough one for me. I turned 60, and being conscious of my age made me aware of mortality in general. I noted how many musicians died halfway through 2012 in a previous column. Well, it seems to me that an inordinate number of people I grew up reading, listening to, watching, and otherwise paying attention to have died in the past year, Spain Rodriguez among them. I was an original fan of Spain’s proletarian Trashman (Agent of the Sixth International) comic superhero, and I placed an advanced order for his graphic biography Che once I learned Spain was working on it.

I won’t attempt to summarize his rich, varied life, from working in foundries and riding as a biker with the Vultures motorcycle gang, through all of his 1960s adventures, to being a devoted family man, a husband and father in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood producing comic books, graphic novels, and posters for various projects and causes. You can get those details by googling him and checking out wikipedia. David Talbot’s obituary on Salon is particularly enlightening. Instead, I’d like to focus on Spain’s leftist politics. A son of anarchist and socialist immigrants, Spain said that “[w]hen I was a kid I kinda didn’t like rich people … I just kinda had a bad attitude.” So, when he commented that “[m]y hopes are that mankind will build a more just society,” or when he announced on his website “Fight the Oppressor!” his sentiments were more visceral than cerebral.

“I had been interested in politics and history when I was in high school but, you know, it was more instinctual and more aesthetic and it slowly evolved. There’s a party, and they’re probably still around, the Socialist Labor Party, and they would have these get-togethers, and I would get involved in that. So, you know, I developed a Socialist outlook. As a matter of fact, me and Walter Bowart [editor of East Village Other] would get into these intense discussions on those issues. So once I did Trashman, I already had that kind of Marxist outlook.” Clearly, Spain understood ideology, but he was no ideologue. He drew a two page comic detailing the history of the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno (Toward Revolutionary Art, 1976), published Che: A Graphic Biography about Marxist-Leninist Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 2009, and was working on a graphic history of the 2004 San Francisco hotel workers strike by the conventional Unite Here labor union when he died. All were essentially laudatory works, even as each was historically accurate and critically honest.

It would be incorrect to characterize Spain as a naïve artist type, a “useful idiot.” Mistakenly attributed to Lenin, the term “useful idiot” signified individuals who advocated for a cause whose goals they did not understand. Spain’s Nestor Makhno mentioned the democratic structure of Makhno’s guerrilla army “in theory,” but noted that Makhno and his inner command ran the army with a tight-fisted discipline. Spain also described how Trotsky ordered the arrest of anarchists, and how the Bolsheviks first allied with Makhno’s army, then ambushed, imprisoned and killed its leadership. Spain’s graphic biography of Che praised Guevara’s contributions to Cuba’s liberation as well as the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare, while extolling Che’s personal charisma and courage under fire. Spain made no bones about Guevara’s “over-centralized decision-making” (read Stalinist idiocy) in running Cuba’s economy however, or the man’s problematic dealings with African guerrilla soldiers under his command in the Congo. And, if anything, Spain’s comics glorified the violence that he knew was inevitable in any revolutionary situation. Spain Rodriguez was a genuinely non-sectarian class war radical—exultant yet unromantic about socialism’s victories, unswervingly honest yet unapologetic toward its crimes—who had “faith in the revolution.”

Long time readers of this column know that I have been divisive, tendentious and sectarian in defense of my particular political “truth.” I spent last column describing the sectarian squabbling of various Occupy Oakland factions in excruciating detail. The main spokesman for an “insignificant groupuscule” I mentioned in passing has smugly and arrogantly contended that: “OO began its decomposition right around the end of the first week of the encampment. […] The ability of cliques to abuse the GA process began within that first week, culminating in the ultimately unsuccessful – but still demoralizing guilt-mongering of the Decolonize proposal several weeks later. The first betrayal by the union hierarchs occurred during that first week as well; a continued courting of those same creeps throughout the life of OO assured its death. Some of the Move-In Day organizers definitely finished off the edge of contestation that had been present throughout, resulting in a pathetic May Day and an even more absurd Oct 25 commemoration.” Imagine being so angry and bitter in the midst of what was such an inspiring quasi-revolutionary upheaval. Contrast this with Spain Rodriguez, driving around San Francisco in his 70s, no doubt dealing with the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him, saying: “I’ve seen changes in my lifetime. I’ve seen many cool scenes. I have hope cool scenes will keep on coming. I have faith in the revolution.”

The insistence on absolute purity, the unwillingness to accept anything less than 100% and consequent willingness to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the determination to always “lose with style” as Boots Riley has decried, what I’ve called the beautiful loser syndrome made manifest by political purists on the left, is ridiculous. In turn, I’d like to apologize for my cantankerous, ultra-partisan politics of the past, although I can’t say I won’t indulge in such stupidity in the future. Rest In Peace, Spain. Thanks for all the great comics.