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.

Real existing socialism: “What’s Left?” April 2010, MRR #323

Real existing socialism.

This phrase, popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a bit of a misnomer. It was employed primarily by Marxist-Leninists and their fellow travelers to refer to those regimes that called themselves “people’s republics” or “people’s democracies,” two more horrible misnomers. For these true believers in, sycophants of, and apologists for what was once called the Communist Bloc, the term “real existing socialism” was a sly, propagandistic way of simultaneously asserting that this collection of totalitarian, state socialist countries was truly socialist while defending them from the often scathing criticisms of traditional socialists, ultraleftists and idealistic progressives.

“Our critics on the Left can argue endlessly about what socialism should be like; this is real, actual socialism in practice.”

The patent absurdity of this argument was illustrated well by the many conflicts within “real existing socialism” as to who was really, truly socialist—ranging from Yugoslavian Titoism versus Soviet-style socialism to Soviet revision opposing Chinese radicalism. This game of more-socialist-than-thou peaked when Enver Hoxha denounced the rest of the Communist world as revisionist and declared Albania’s Marxism-Leninism-Hoxhaism to be the only true, authentic form of socialism. A long list of incidents in which one type of socialism militarily suppressed another type of socialism in the name of “true socialism” also comes to mind. It begins with Lenin and Trotsky crushing Ukrainian anarchism and the Kronstadt sailors, and culminates with Soviet tanks smashing Hungarian workers councils and Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face.” The Chinese PLA’s demolition of the Shanghai Commune is the bloody postscript. And need I point out that the number of real existing socialist regimes of this type has drastically declined since 1989?

Instead of arguing that Marxist-Leninist systems aren’t really, truly socialist however, let’s see what happens when we try to be more inclusive. What happens when we consider staunch social democratic countries like Sweden to be authentically socialist? What happens when even the sometimes extensive networks of producer and service collectives and cooperatives within capitalist societies are classified as valid forms of real existing socialism (from here on out referred to as RES)?

This expanded definition of RES does not cover all forms of socialist organization, and leaves out most political groups and parties, social/cultural associations, and militant unions. The somewhat fuzzy boundary crops up where union workers actually run their enterprises, political organizations provide services such as workers schools, and social/cultural groups delve into things like mutual aid societies. Still, this more inclusive notion of RES does have one particularly important ramification.

Marxism-Leninism, social democracy, and utopian socialism are all well represented in this larger RES. The representation of anarchism and left communism is practically nil. Of course, there is the occasional workers cooperative, collective or commune based explicitly on anti-state, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian politics, but as viable movements and social orders, anarchism and left communism are non-existent within RES.

As a former anarchist who retains some identification with left communism, I wish this weren’t so. But it is. Anarchism and left communism both champion a number of historically brief revolutionary moments (Russia 1905 & 1917, Germany 1918-21, Spain 1936-39, Hungary 1956, France 1968, etc.) that, while exemplary, were fleeting, and failed to produce lasting, libertarian socialist societies. For anarchists and left communists, RES is not true socialism when compared to these ephemeral revolutionary examples. Yet no anti-state, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian RES exists as an alternative.

The reasons why anarchism and left communism have failed to produce lasting revolutionary options are myriad, and vary from the historically specific to rather universal problems. The important fact here is that, without exception, they have failed. At this point, we have three choices available to deal with this fact. We can go along with a seemingly eternal anti-authoritarian optimism to proclaim that, despite this dismal record, the next revolutionary uprising will somehow overcome all odds and be victorious. Second, we can argue that, with a little tinkering and some key changes, we can increase anarchism and left communism’s probabilities for future success. Or finally, we can declare anarchists and left communists perennial “beautiful losers” and pronounce their politics bankrupt.

The first is not so much an option as it is a description of insanity, of doing the same damned thing over and over while expecting radically different results. The second choice appears to be more tempered and realistic. Yet it is largely ineffectual due to what I call the Baskin-Robbins syndrome. Hang on, this is going to require an extended frozen desserts metaphor.

After the second World War, when geopolitics polarized between East and West, between the Communist Bloc and the Free World, there were several attempts to create a neo-anarchist/left communist politics that could function as a tertium quid. Paris in the 1960s produced a French ice cream called Situationism that became all the rage for decades to come. With its mixture of left Marxist analysis and anarchist spirit, along with a heavy dollop of subjectivism, Situationism was more than just one of thirty-one flavors, more like a basic, ubiquitous vanilla. To boldly mix my metaphors, a friend once described the Situationists as a motley theatre troupe that managed one mediocre performance in Paris 1968, and hasn’t done much since. They were no Cirque du Soleil, to be sure.

Returning to ice cream as politics, tastes changed and by the mid-to-late 1970s, Italian autonomist gelato became popular, followed in the late 1980s/early 1990s by the spumoni of Italian anarchism and “action without mediation.” Various flavors of anti-globalization dominated the late 1990s/early 2000s, and most recently we’ve seen a revival of French crème glacée. The Invisible Committee’s blend of insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism in “The Call” and “The Coming Insurrection” is covered with nihilist hot fudge, and topped with Theorie Communiste sprinkles, Michel Foucault jimmies and Giorgio Agamben crumbles. Study groups of youthful radicals can’t seem to get enough of this riotous confection.

[The post-left, anti-politics, anarchy crowd is all over this like flies on shit. Hell, even Diamond Dave Whitaker is doing a TCI study group. Talk about April fools! What more do you need to know that this stuff is doomed?!]

Invariably, these neo-anarchist/left communist concoctions are tried and found wanting. But that’s not why I predict that the current French mélange will soon fall out of favor. There’s a fickle Baskin-Robbins “flavor of the month” attitude to all of this that belies serious politics. Young revolutionaries flit from one faddish political fashion to another as they might flick between MP3s on their iPods. Needless to say, this is no way to make revolution. Further, it’s a guarantee that anarchism and left communism will find no place in RES.

At the risk of coming off as a naïve American pragmatist, I insist that a central criterion of any politics must be that they work. It does little good that insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism are now trendy, if they do nothing to advance successful revolution. It means even less if those who advocate such politics are willing to change them at the drop of a hat, just to be au courant, whether or not those politics can overthrow state and capital, let alone create and sustain a socialist society.

Which leaves us with our third choice, the bankruptcy of anti-authoritarian politics. I’m loath to consider this option, even as reality backs me into this corner. Maurice Merleau-Ponty contended, in Humanism and Terror, that all of Stalin’s crimes—his terror and purges, his forced collectivization and calculated famines, his show trials and gulags—could be forgiven if only the Soviet Union had achieved a truly liberated, humanistic socialism. Flipping this, can the emancipatory ideas of anarchism and left communism be countenanced in light of their shoddy, lackluster performance in the real world? I doubt it, given the paucity of a real existing anti-authoritarian socialism.

What we are left with are beautiful dreams that fail to become anything more than reverie, and dreamers who continually romanticize their own failures. That’s not enough.