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October 1971: On Sectarianism and Splits Printer Friendly Version

On Sectarianism and Splits

James Herod
October 1971

  I have been unable so far to figure out exactly what sectarianism is, either as used classically (1900-1930) by European revolutionaries or as used currently in the movement. Lenin certainly never hesitated to split with various groups or to refuse to work with them when he felt it necessary. In fact these splits were usually initiated by Lenin. He would accuse them of being revisionists or opportunists or what have you. At other times he would argue for including the whole range of factions within the party. I have to study this out and figure out what was going on.

  In our struggles, especially during the period of the SDS break up and during the past year (1970-71) when so many groups have disbanded, so many different tendencies have emerged, and so many people have left the movement, the sectarian label is usually applied to those who refuse to cooperate with others in the movement because of some difference in political belief. Thus gays will say: ``You have to be gay to be revolutionary.'' If you are not gay they think you're not a revolutionary, and they write you out of the movement. If you are not into armed struggle you get written out of the movement in certain circles. So there have been all these splits: nonviolent civil disobedience versus armed struggle; gays versus straights; women-only versus women-and-men-together feminists; jesus-freaks versus marxists; mass-rally, lowest-common-denominator politics versus militant street fighting; peace treaty supporters versus anti peace treaty people, and so forth.

  I don't understand what is sectarian about this. It could be that we have to separate out two things: political disagreement from writing people out of the movement. But this distinction breaks down after a while. What if you do continue to argue and debate the issues, like we did in CRV, and do stay in the same organization and don't write people out of the movement, but you simply can't agree, on issue after issue? What if this goes on and on, until you finally get sick of it, realize that there is no basis for common action, and want to stop working together, because obviously heads are in very different places.

  In CRV we disagreed on just about everything: about whether or not to support the peace treaty, on whether or not to make a big thing out of the Berrigan trial, about whether to focus on Third World revolutions or the domestic front, on whether or not to endorse the Weather underground, about the structure of the organization, about accepting church money, even about whether or not to disband the chapter. Was this sectarianism? The side I called `liberal' accused `us' of being sectarian all the time, by which they usually meant that they thought it unfair of us not to consider their views just as valid as the ones we held to ourselves. I often replied that they were unwilling to hash things out and work them through and arrive at an agreed upon policy. But I must admit that since I was on the winning side, since our side tended to get its way, this was a two-faced argument, because if we had consistently lost then it is unlikely that we would have stayed interested very long in remaining in the organization. We would have felt stymied and restricted, and in fact blocked, by an organization dominated by liberals. That is, we wouldn't have been so keen on hashing things through. They thought we were ``extremists.''

  I worked this issue through once before, in the context of the Minneapolis chapter affair (its application for membership in the organization, CRV). It was a question of a single liberal chapter trying to change the direction of a traditionally radical organization, an organization set up and built by radicals. I felt that the radicals had a right to prevent their organization from being taken over by liberals. But this is tricky. It presupposes a definition of radical, which of course cannot possibly exist because new issues are constantly emerging and the radical position on them has to be constantly forged, defined, worked out. What if, say, the liberal chapter is denied membership, but then as time goes on, and as new issues emerge the original group that formerly had a consensus about what was radical on a given set of issues, begins to disagree about the new issues. Let's say that a guerrilla war has started and the question is whether or not to declare solidarity with it. Now you have the same problem within the organization as you formerly had between the organization and a group seeking to join it, one whose political philosophy differed from that of the organization. Now what if this issue of armed struggle and guerrilla war becomes very central? How is this resolved? Can you take a vote? What if those opposed to armed struggle win?

  Take the classic case, to consider another example. What if all the socialists join the world war on the side of their individual countries, abandoning the international workers struggle completely? Do you concede the policy just because the majority votes it in, and if not, if you go against the majority when you disagree with it, then why vote at all when you think your side will lose? Why vote ever? What good does voting do? Well, it is a way of operating until one or the other side decides to split, until a really principled issue comes along on which compromise is impossible. (Dahl's Preface to Democratic Theory may be helpful here, liberal though it is, especially his discussions of the intensity of minority feelings, and civil war.)

  It seems clear to me that these issues are about the struggle for political power. They have very little to do with democracy, because the current task is to defeat the ruling class, and if people disagree about how to achieve this objective then they will part ways. Democracy, that is, majority rule, will make more sense after the revolution, and in fact only then. By definition, the task of the revolution is to establish democracy for the first time, that is, equal distribution of political power, where in fact the majority can rule.

  But this issue is so incredibly tricky. If political power were equally distributed, if the proletariat, the majority of people in the society, did control and dominate the society, then the problem of disagreeing with the majority would be very different, and the question of splits would be very different. It could very well be that the majority would `take the road to capitalism', even after a long time in power. What then? The majority has in fact never yet ruled anywhere, China not excluded. There you have a vanguard party still calling the shots, still saying what is `revisionist' and what is `extremist'.

  This brings me back to my critique of Wolff and to the habit liberals have of seeing majority tyranny as the key current problem, all the while ignoring ruling class control of the society, fearing only the violation of minority rights and the loss individual autonomy. This is a mis-location of the problem.

  It's funny how this problem of sectarianism turned so quickly, or led so quickly back to these basic questions of socialist democracy. There is urgent need for clarification on this whole batch of problems.

  The point is: I don't see how these fights or splits can be avoided. In fact, I think they are probably healthy. People who oppose the sectarianism of gays, or Weather people, or whomever, are usually merely unwittingly substituting their own criterion, usually a much broader one, for the one they disagree with. That is, they will say for example that you don't have to be a gay to be a revolutionary. But this is clearly no different than saying you do have to be a gay to be a revolutionary. Both people are taking a stand on a particular issue. Some people thought you couldn't fight in World War I as a patriot and still claim to be a revolutionary socialist. Others thought you could. These disagreements are inevitable. Maybe only one person speaks out and holds to a certain position on a given issue. In later generations many people may feel that that person was correct, others may not. Even then, generations later, it is still a question of the dominant view. What if the revisionist view had predominated today in Left circles, instead of the Marxist-Leninist, so that Lenin would now be seen as a left-wing extremist? So it gets very complicated. It all boils down to who wins.

  I had at one point formulated a solution as follows: democracy within the revolution, but political struggle and war without, between the revolution and the enemy. But this is no solution at all. It completely by-passes the whole question of splits, which I have been discussing. Who defines the revolution? Who says what is within the revolution, and what is without? Is Padilla within the revolution or is he part of the enemy? I'll have to review how Mao solved these ``contradictions among the people and between the enemy and the people.'' It seems to me his distinction is a false one, leading to a false solution to the solidarity problem, even after basing the analysis on class, because it presupposes an elite, a vanguard party, to make the ultimate decision about who is to be considered part of the people and who is part of the enemy.

  The best proof of my argument perhaps is the directive that finally came down from the Central Committee in China, as the cultural revolution wore on, to put an end to the warring between factions. The directive said that all these factions were part of the people, not the enemy, and that they should use discussion, not fighting, to revolve disputes. The point is, of course, that these groups themselves couldn't resolve their differences peacefully. The intervention of a higher authority was needed to end the fighting. Thus the problem remains unsolved. What if there had been no higher authority? This is the problem to tackle. This is the problem we face here in America, where we hope to make a revolution without a vanguard party.

  I wish I could map out even the beginning of a solution to the problem. If you could get even a small group of people to agree on solid lines of strategy, tactics, and political philosophy, maybe they could hold together and expand, attracting more and more people. Then it would be a question of other groups bouncing off this large mainstream revolutionary group. But what if it stopped being revolutionary (in my opinion). Then I would have to split from it, and start or join another group, or simply withdraw support (but by then it could be too late, as under Stalin). From my point of view, it looks very discouraging. There are more tendencies in the movement now that I have to oppose than there are tendencies to support and identify with (jesus-freaks, pacifists, occultists, culture-freaks, nonviolent civil disobedience freaks, SWP/YSA/SMC, PL, academic freaks, liberals, electoral politics freaks, gay-only freaks, men-haters, farm freaks). It seems highly unlikely, given the disastrous level of culture in this country, that a genuinely revolutionary consensus could emerge as a major, dominant force among a fairly large number of people.

  And there are many, many pitfalls. Say the Weather underground survives and continues to wage war against the state. By the very fact that they do this they will be in a position to define strategy. They will define what it means to be revolutionary. And of course this is the solution which is not a solution. The people who wage the fight and win are the ones who decide what the correct policy is. Since they have engaged in the battle for domination, for power, why should they not make the decisions? That's how the sectarian issue is solved in practice. If your side wins, the others are the extremists or revisionists, i.e., the sectarians.

  It's like the Mensheviks asking for a share of power after they had opposed the Bolsheviks all those years throughout the revolution. Trotsky laughed at them. The Bolsheviks captured power and they would keep it. The same with Castro. He ridiculed the very idea that the revolutionaries (the `leaders' of the people, who fought and made the revolution) should step down. It was their project, they carried it out and won, with a little help from the masses, and they would decide on its fate. Hence the failure to achieve socialist democracy in any of these countries, not in Russia, nor in China, nor in Cuba. (In Cuba, for example, rank or status is determined by who is considered `most revolutionary', as judged by the party. Thus hierarchy is once again established, merely using a different criterion. This is already a perverted revolution, not a step toward the egalitarian society.)

  The failure to achieve socialist democracy originates with the fact that the ruling class has to be defeated, that the revolution is a power struggle, a war, and whoever wins the war is thus in a position of dominance. How do you get from there, this victory (a hierarchical society based on dominance), to an egalitarian society? You can't. Is it then a question of having to change the way in which the ruling class is brought down? Yes, I think it is. It is surely not a question of changing the behavior of the vanguard party after it has captured power, for that is tantamount to waging another power struggle, which of course reduces to another war, another struggle for domination. Nor is it, certainly, a question of hoping for a more enlightened vanguard. The difference has to be in the way the revolution is carried out. We have to find a way to make a revolution without a vanguard party. The people themselves have to make the revolution.

  But this brings us face to face with the realities of our situation. Only some of the people (`people' meaning the vast majority of people who are wage-earners) want to make a revolution. Most of the workers are against it, some adamantly so. Yet, if the workers themselves make the revolution directly, without a vanguard, this means that it has to be a really widespread, massive revolt, with most people in on it, consciously engaging in struggle. That is, they have to enter the fight unified, and with a clear strategy, the very thing the Leninists say is impossible. Leninists note that the working class is divided in a thousand ways, that it is not revolutionary, and conclude that a vanguard party is needed to prepare the revolution and guide the workers. Perhaps this is where we have to part ways with the Leninists.

  The vanguard (used here in the sense of `militants') should attempt to radicalize the mass of workers by its activities and propaganda, but it should never attempt to take over control of the state. The goal is not to capture the state machinery but to destroy it. Thus, in this scenario, there would never be a group of revolutionaries, like the Bolsheviks, coming into power. There would never be a Castro making a triumphant march on Havana to assume control of the nation. The nation as such, the state, would cease to exist with the victory of the revolution. How? Because the workers, by taking over the means of production directly, and by setting up new decision-making machinery (i.e., direct democracy), would have destroyed and abolished the state. The state would simply cease to function, and would have no power because no one would recognize it.

  But there are many problems with this. What would government officials be doing all this time? The army? Evidently the Tupamaros are heading in this direction – continuing to wage war but never attempting to take control of the state, even though they could if they wanted to. Why? Their aim is to educate and radicalize the majority of the population so that the majority can make the revolution directly, unmediated by the vanguard. This is one thing I hate about a vanguard, that it is a mediator. It mediates the revolution. It stands between the revolution and the people. This line of argument has to be further clarified. But it seems to me to be a step in the right direction. It gives revolutionaries something to do, by helping to define their relationship to the non-revolutionary majority. The state obviously has enormous resources to fight this kind of war too, to resist and prevent radicalization of the majority, and to keep people integrated into the silent majority, as passive patriots of the capitalist state.