Sectarianism and Intransigence: a critique of the leftist conception of ‘unity’

25 Mar

‘Unity’ is generally considered to be of paramount importance to leftists, to the point where this concept is upheld as a principle in its own right to which the left must adhere to in order for the workers’ revolution to materialize. Alongside this principle comes the leftist conception of sectarianism, the rejection of unity to avoid political dilution. We believe that a criticism of this conception, in the light of Marx’s own understanding of sectarianism, could serve to shed light upon the role of communists in relation to workers’ revolution, and contend that Marx’s views on this matter have unsurprisingly been distorted by the great majority of his supposed theoretical heirs, a symptom of their greater misunderstandings.

The basis of pan-leftism lies in the supposed significance and duty of the conscious sect in relation to the revolution of the working class. Rather than struggle being immanent to capitalism, conditioned by the inherent antagonisms of bourgeois society, revolution is something which must be ignited ‘’deliberately and arbitrarily’’ by the erudite revolutionaries without whom the class is incapable of challenging the political power of the bourgeoisie. Based on this understanding of class struggle as interchangeable with the struggle of the cadre, it follows that there is a profoundly important historical task to be completed by the conscious minorities. Given that these voluntarists see the current locomotive for historical progress to be self-proclaimed educators of the class rather than the class itself, we can see how the unity of the conscious socialists becomes so vital, so that the movement of the proletariat is not divided by the conflicting ideals of the separated left, the sectarians so they say. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’ and as the ‘house’, the revolutionary movement, is here built on foundations of consciousness, the division of consciousness represents its destruction. It becomes clear then that the opposition to the pan-left, this monolithic force of revolutionary leaders, is the epitome of sectarianism, also becoming synonymous with a dogmatic adherence to political doctrine. Those who would not depart from the stringency of program for the greater unity are condemned by the left for their heretical shunning of the principle of unity. The failure of the left to unite is therefore placed as the ultimate reason for the defeat of the class up to his point in history on the battlegrounds of bourgeois society. The content of class struggle is therefore entirely reliant on the strength of the teachers of the proletariat and the revolutionary education that they grant to them.

The opposition to leftist unity is widely considered to be one of the largest problems faced by the workers’ movement amongst the ‘revolutionary’ milieu, but it was in fact not considered so by Marx, just as he did not share the modern leftist conception of sectarianism. Marx’s notion of sectarianism was inseparable from his critique of utopian socialism as a form of idealism, which he differentiated from scientific socialism: the support for the working class based on their historically determined material interest rather than due to any ideals or eternal moral principles. Sectarianism for Marx and Engels was then, the support for principles external to and thus in conflict with the real workers’ movement of communism, which did not aim to realise any ideals through struggle nor create a society based upon them:

‘’They [the communists] have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.’’(1)

The sectarians are such because they hold eternal principles above this struggle (which, of course, one must do as soon as one holds eternal principles), which they oppose as soon as it breaches them. The sectarian leftist groups come into conflict with the workers when they attempt to subjugate their program to an ethical doctrine, in which case communism ignores or if need be destroys such barriers to its movement,

‘’The first phase in the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is marked by sectarianism. This is because the proletariat has not yet reached the stage of being sufficiently developed to act as a class. Individual thinkers provide a critique of social antagonisms, and put forward fantastic solutions which the mass of workers can only accept, pass on, and put into practice. By their very nature, the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief, to any unified movement. The mass of the proletariat always remains unmoved by, if not hostile to, their propaganda.”(2)

A common example of leftist sectarianism is the espousal of what is known as the democratic principle, which subjugates the analysis of class society to the analysis of the formless ‘masses’. The democratic view of society is essentially of the same nature as that of the capitalist state and the nation: it views things from the perspective of an illusory ‘general interest’ placed above the existence of class antagonisms.  The will of ‘the people’ as abstract individuals devoid of class distinction is to be upheld through statistical majorities, and this is elevated to a principle. In recognising that no such general interest exists, communists support the interest of the proletariat alone, regardless of whether the struggle of the proletariat maintains the support of the majority of the abstract population, or even within the statistical limitations of the working class. Communists must always support the movement of the class, regardless of whether a strike is carried out by the minority of the workers or even if expropriation itself is the act of less than the majority of the proletariat. Of course a severe lack of support may be an obstacle to the success of the movement but this is a matter of practicality rather than principle, just as the democratic mechanism should not be rejected when it presents itself historically. To require on principle that communism maintains such a majority is fundamentally sectarian with reactionary implications. Another significant ailment of the left is the principle of national self-determination, which is ultimately the right of national capitals to exploit their own working classes without international disturbance, implying that the proletariat should fight and die for ‘their’ national bourgeoisie. National interest can never be supported as a matter of principle; as Engels says:

“We must co-operate in the work of setting the West European proletariat free and subordinate everything else to that goal. No matter how interesting the Balkan Slavs, etc., might be, the moment their desire for liberation clashes with the interests of the proletariat they can go hang for all I care.”(3)

The nation, as the international expression of the bourgeois state shared the immediate interests of the proletariat only as long as the bourgeoisie was historically revolutionary. National interest today is an unrelenting enemy of the working class just like the sectarians who uphold such interests as universal principles.

It now becomes apparent that raising ‘unity’ to the level of eternal applicability is also sectarian in the Marxist theoretical framework, as Engels noted in a correspondence to August Bebel,

‘’One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for “unity.” Those who have this word most often on their lips are those who sow the most dissension, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, scream for nothing so much as for unity. Those unity fanatics are either the people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything up together into one nondescript brew, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again in much more acute opposition because they are now all together in one pot (you have a fine example of this in Germany with the people who preach the reconciliation of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie)–or else they are people who consciously or unconsciously (like Mühlberger, for instance) want to adulterate the movement. For this reason the greatest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues are at certain moments the loudest shouters for unity. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble and been more treacherous than the unity shouters.’’(4)

Ironically, the very principle of leftist ‘anti-sectarianism’ itself is shown to be sectarian. Its implications to the class movement consist of ultimate detriment, the collaboration with the bourgeoisie and the adulteration of the revolutionary movement. After all, proletarian revolution is the abolition of the proclaimed unity of bourgeois society; it is the ultimate realisation of the contradictions, antagonisms and social grotesqueries of capital which leads to its own downfall. The cry for ‘unity’ is never far from the rhetoric of the bourgeois populists and democrats, who do not see in terms of class but in terms of ‘the people’ or ‘the majority’, concepts which are entirely separated from the communist perspective. In elevating unity to a fundamental principle of the class movement, it neglects the real issue and principle of this movement itself; as Engels said in regards to the split of Malon and Brousse from their union with Guesde and Lafargue,

‘’The issue is purely one of principle: is the struggle to be conducted as a class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, or is it to be permitted that in good opportunist (or as it is called in the Socialist translation: possibilist) style the class character of the movement, together with the programme, are everywhere to be dropped where there is a chance of winning more votes, more adherents, by this means. Malon and Brousse, by declaring themselves in favour of the latter alternative, have sacrificed the proletarian class character of the movement and made separation inevitable. All the better.’’(5)

Marx was  hardly alien to accusation of authoritarianism and sectarianism in the rejection of hollow unity in favour of obedience to the doctrine of the class,

‘’In the second place, who is to establish whether or not the particular rules conform to the General Rules? Evidently, if there were no “authority” charged with this function, the resolution would be null and void. Not only could police and hostile sections be formed, but also the intrusion of declassed sectarians and bourgeois philanthropists into the Association could warp its character and, by force of numbers at Congresses, crush the workers.’’(6)

The ‘authoritarian’ tendencies of the communists are merely a reflection of the immanent principle of the workers’ movement itself, its existence as a struggle for class interests, which therefore cannot take any other principles for granted, but must rather hold them up against the ruling stick of practicality towards this real end. This attitude was expressed by Marx and Engels repeatedly with his policy towards the admission of groups into the international, for example, in regards to the positivists,

‘’On February 8, 1870, the Paris “Society of Positivist Proletarians” applied to the General Council for admission. The Council replied that the principles of the Positivists, the part of the society’s special rules concerning capital, were in flagrant contradiction with the preamble of the General Rules; that the society had, therefore, to drop them and join the International not as “Positivists” but as “proletarians”, while remaining free to reconcile their theoretical ideas with the Association’s general principles. Realizing the justness of this decision, the section joined the International.’’(7)

By dismissing the need for political rigidity and allowing a broader coalition of those proclaiming themselves as advocates of social revolution, one submits themselves to the role of any other bourgeois party in the parliamentary playground of ideals.  If the schools of leftism today are to have any consistency in their theories they should put Marx and Engels at the top of the list of history’s greatest sectarians,

‘’Now the sectarian quarrel-mongers are preaching conciliation and decrying us as the intolerant and the dictators. And if we had come out in a conciliatory way at the Hague, if we had hushed up the breaking out of the split–what would have been the result? The sectarians, especially the Bakuninists, would have got another year in which to perpetrate, in the name of the International, much greater stupidities and infamies even; the workers of the most developed countries would have turned away in disgust; the bubble would not have burst but, pierced by pinpricks, would have slowly collapsed, and the next Congress, which would have been bound to bring the crisis anyhow, would have turned into the lowest kind of personal row, because principles had already been sacrificed at the Hague. Then the International would indeed have gone to pieces—gone to pieces through “unity”!’’(8)

Subjection to the accusations of leftist moralism on such grounds is generally a good sign that one has aptly understood their Marxist theory. It is fairly hard for one to argue with any cogency that Marx and Engels were reluctant to reject the credentials of the so called revolutionaries that came into conflict with the fundamental positions of the communist project. In fact, the internal struggles of the movement were regarded as neither negative nor avoidable,

‘’The development of the proletariat proceeds everywhere amidst internal struggles and France, which is now forming a workers’ party for the first time, is no exception. We in Germany have got beyond the first phase of the internal struggle, other phases still lie before us. Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one’s life long against the alleged Socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.’’(9)

Further stating,

‘’For the rest, old Hegel has already said: A party proves itself a victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split. The movement of the proletariat necessarily passes through different stages of development; at every stage one section of people lags behind and does not join in the further advance; and this alone explains why it is that actually the “solidarity of the proletariat” is everywhere realised in different party groupings which carry on life and death feuds with one another, as the Christian sects in the Roman Empire did amidst the worst persecutions.’’(10)

The pan-leftists are today’s greatest sectarians. Of course, the unity shouters would consider themselves partisans of workers unity. But the unity of the left is not only entirely separated from but is in fact opposed to the movement of the united class. It is the height of naivety to believe that the ‘left’ in general or even in any great number are advocates of proletarian interest, the program which ends with the abolition of their very condition as a class along with any propagation of a false general interest represented by state and democracy.  Enforcing the unity of the left on principle can lead to nothing other than the collaboration with the bourgeois socialists, the labour fakirs, all of those who represent the interests of capital’s left political apparatus who despite their rhetoric, are nothing other than capital disguised in red clothing,

‘’Communists must unremittingly struggle against these bourgeois socialists because they work for the enemies of communists and protect the society which communists aim to overthrow.’’(11)

The concepts of sectarianism advocated by the pan-left and by Marx present themselves antithetical, the former idealist and the latter materialist. This is fairly evident when looking at the opposing theories on the history of class struggle. For the leftist the united and popular fronts pose themselves as indispensable platforms for the revolutionary struggle whereas the communists see these forms as blatant organs of class collaboration, just as the leftists attribute the rise of fascism to the victory of the right over the disunited left in the battle of ideals rather than treating the determination of historical social formations as entirely detached from the will of their participants. Of course the leftist historian does not hesitate to label Bordiga as sectarian for his advocacy of invariance, whilst the faces of Marx and Engels are followed by a sequence of bourgeois political figures on the flags of every hopeless nationalist party of capital’s left.

The task of igniting the revolution is not allocated to any political group, no matter how well they maintain adherence to the communist program. The proletariat is its own and only agent for revolution, it is the material force which abolishes the remnants of class society and the disastrous separation of the individual from the community. It is this very separation from one another, from humanity and from human society which does not only inspire the working class to violently escape their condition but in fact gives them no other option, as capital is entirely incapable of maintaining its existence without destroying itself. The separation of the left from the working class, as well as the fragmentation of the left in itself is not a problem for class struggle. Consciousness is not the prerequisite to revolution; it is only achievable through, after and as a part of successful struggle. As Paul Mattick said, ‘’the proletarian revolution, while it changes the world, will not neglect to educate the astonished educators‘’(12). Those already conscious of the struggle have no historical role separate from the rest of the class, they must simply maintain their militancy against capital and push the struggle as hard as possible in every situation. The importance of communist organisations will be determined by the factors of insurrection to which they have no control over.

In gaining momentum, the revolution will sweep away the various sectarians who would aim to push for left capitalist compromises and utopias and the subordination of revolutionary interest to the bourgeoisie. Amidst the struggle, it is only the genuine supporters of the material class interests that are aside from and opposed to the conquest for ideals that will maintain their being with the class and the party movement. These bodies will not strive for unity at any cost but instead will rigidly maintain their historical task and oppose those factions who would seek to distort it.

(1) Manifesto of the Communist Party

(2) Fictitious Splits in the International by Marx and Engels

(3) Engels to Eduard Bernstein 1882 [letter]

(4) Engels to August Bebel in Hubertsberg 1873 [letter]

(5) Engels to August Bebel in Leipzig 1882 [letter]

(6) Ibid. 2

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid. 5

(10) Ibid. 4

(11) The Principles of Communism by Engels

(12) The Inevitability of Communism by Paul Mattick 1936

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