9 Sectarianism and Unity

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

Once a slogan becomes popular, it is appropriated for general use though it may be given vastly different meanings. To an outsider from any movement, there must seem to be a proliferation of sects saying or going round much the same thing. This is said of the revolutionary movement of our times. It was equally valid of the French Revolution. Even in the wake of the Reformation came the diverse sectarianism of the Protestant revolutionaries, when some of the approaches to spiritual problems were made which are now applied to social ones. There was, too, a reflection of the class struggle following economic changes.

But the term "sectarianism" is not a reproach. The British revolutionary movement has proceeded from sectarianism. All its achievements have been under sectarian banners. Unity is strength, but expressing opposite points of view within one organisation is only cashbox unity which gives cashbox strength. The saving on overhead expenses has nothing to do with an adventure of the mind or a determination of will.

Economic changes can only come about as a result of unity at the places of work. Workers' councils, united with others, industry by industry, and locality by locality, are the basis of a revolutionary movement and also of a changeover in the system. It is possible now "to build the new society within the framework of the old", by the creation of units in industry; localised associations for mutual aid and protection; co-operative endeavours and even clubs of common interest. A living commune consists of all facets of human interest. A united, local commune can bypass the State and ignore laws imposed upon it that it does not wish to observe, unless the authorities use force. And a commune active in co-ordinating workers' councils, tenants' associations and many other action groups, would be the fallback unit in any creation of a free society. It circumvents the need for the State and thus negates authority. It makes it possible for the State to be abolished.

It is not supposed that such a movement could be composed entirely of conscious libertarian revolutionaries. This would not be envisaged by the "sectarian" but the very people who would say they are against sectarianism would presume that it should be so. It is accepted that within any workers' council or local commune that might now be created, there would be many political trends and ideas, including authoritarian ones. That in itself does not make the movement less libertarian or less revolutionary. A free society is one in which repressive institutions are abolished. As they are there to ensure economic domination, the end of one means the end of the other.

The fundamental mistake that lost the Russian Revolution was allowing parties to be represented within the councils by individual delegates. The soviets did not consist of "delegates of workers, soldiers and peasants", as was at first presumed; but of parties. Orators like Lenin and Trotsky were certainly not workers or soldiers, far less peasants. They became leaders of the councils by virtue of being leaders of their party. Their rise to power was through years of party intrigue. As journalists (if that were their profession) they had a slim chance of representing the printworkers' soviets. As leaders of their party, they were prominent figures -- big fish in a small pond.

It would not matter that delegates to committees were, outside the committee, members of political parties or religious bodies. Experience shows that those politically committed will certainly form associations outside industrial or tenants' committees which will give them assistance in their work inside. A strike committee will gladly take help from an outside body. It takes it less gladly when the outside body, using the magic words "ad hoc" and "liaison", wants to take over control.

Still less does it matter when one goes past the stage of having delegated committees, and adopts the principle of the mass-meeting. But since, even so, there will be this type of propaganda with which to contend, the anarchist -- accepting that real unity is on the social and economic field -- will find it necessary to be able to express libertarian views to counter the authoritarian views. For this he needs his outside support, too. Some form of sectarian organisation becomes inevitable.

For those with experience only of authoritarian organisation it appears that organisation can only be totalitarian or democratic, and that those who disbelieve in government must by that token disbelieve in organisation at all. That is not so, but it may be admitted that to the revolutionary anarchist, there is no purpose as such in forming a numerically strong, financially sound or even politically effective amorphous body. Within what is vaguely thought of as the libertarian movement, there may be various trends, though many are invented for the purpose of discussion. Amorphous unity has an attraction for the amorphous journal or the amorphous grouping, which spawns freely. It may grow around the leader without a following, who perhaps has been elected by the Press or TV to an eminence he has not yet attained, but may well do so "by unity". It is not through united fronts of such a kind that one can change the economic problems of society.

It has become recognised as a danger within any revolutionary movement that it may emulate the religious sects, in that a "well-known person" may lay down what may well be an excellent programme for revolution, to such an extent that he will be worshipped years after his death. The relic of his followers will group themselves in small parties in his remembrance, and be absolved from any necessity to follow the programme. Or the revolutionary himself, because of his own programme, postpones any revolutionary action that falls short; in such an event, it is just as much a means of adapting oneself to the system as the belief in reforms or the adaptation to careerism. Or, economic action being thought of as the only form of direct action, the revolutionary enters the trade union movement and is immersed. Alternatively, he sees there are other forms of direct action, but cuts himself off completely from industry.

The task of the revolutionary is resistance to oppression, even if the resistance is that of one person alone. It is not the idealisation of aims. It is absurd to speak of anarchism as a doctrine of love, non-violence, even of freedom. This is a description of society at which we are aiming, but we cannot profess a monopoly in such ideas. We can only say that an authoritarian society makes them impossible and even sound undesirable to those brainwashed by the State. The assertion of these ideas as high ideals but devoid of practicality for lack of economic change in society, or used as a criterion by which to reform present institutions, we have here described as militant liberalism (as opposed to parliamentary liberalism). Thought of as philosophic anarchism, it can become trendy. But the alternative is not ossification. In the International Anarchist Conference at Carrara (1968) the possibility of a traditionalised ossified revolutionary movement became clear.

The press tried to explain the division there in terms of "youth" versus "age", and this is an imposed prejudice of the mass media which could have confused the issue. Ideas held too long without action become ideals. Ideals may inspire. But they can also be kept too long in the fridge.

Revolutionary socialist ideals, without the action that goes with them, degenerate to an endless sales campaign for literature or a perpetual education class (in which "the workers" are "educated to the level of the party consciousness" and it is not even noticed that the standard of the latter has become lower than that of the former1 ). Parties become monuments to dead leaders. However militant the early promise of programmes, the rump that remains when these have been postponed -- simply because it has not degenerated into reformism -- cannot of its nature be militant. The profession of anarchist ideals is no guarantee against this. Ossified revolutionary movements, though they may object to the description of "party", become dead political parties. Syndicalist movements may become large, and therefore be compelled, in order to serve their members, to bargain with capitalism. Anarchist movements may fall into bureaucracy in an endeavour to preserve property against outside takeover. An ossified federation is only a memorial to past activity, and this proved at Carrara to be the case with many of those represented, in particular those preserving, in exile, a past historic role.

It seems (at any rate, to the writers of this book) that the alternative is sectarianism. Even a movement based upon activity can become ossified in the future. Unity with other organisations is to dilute revolution, not to foster it. The holding of ideals in the abstract is an interesting philosophical exercise. Applying them to current social problems is a chimera. To make an organisation active or even effective is of little ultimate use, since it tends to compromise, ossify or vanish. The struggle that counts is that which helps to build up a new society, and this can only be aided by the revolutionary individual or group which persistently puts forward its propaganda by word and deed. By our sectarianism we may at present be divided from the rest of the world. But otherwise we are part of the world. We do not accept the absurd contention of Trotskyism that it is necessary to join the Labour Party in order to "be in" among the working class.

The libertarian revolutionary cannot have anything to do with party political organisation.2 It can only be a vantage place for power, or a memorial to past battles, or a spiritual ghetto. It is subject to the pitfalls of bureaucracy or those of takeover. Democratic control is no safeguard, for though majority decision is accepted as an expedient way of doing business, in practice the intake is controlled so that the majority will be in accordance with the decisions to be taken.3

What pass off as revolutionary issues, therefore, have seldom any relevance to revolutionary ideas. In degenerated Protestantism, churches and chapels are founded which become new sects, and arise sometimes merely out of quarrels as to whose hand should be in the cashbox, or personal differences upon the manner in which business should be conducted, quite as much as over doctrinal disputes. The pattern can repeat itself politically. But it has nothing whatever to do with building a new society.

  • 1cf. the Socialist Party of Great Britain (Fitzgeraldites) for an interesting illustration. It broke from the old Social Democrat Federation 60 years ago, adopted a programme based on the bowdlerised version of Marx then current, and has remained static ever since.
  • 2We are well aware that a libertarian can do whatever he chooses. It is not, however, by moral standards that one judges a revolutionary, but by actions. If we say that a total abstainer cannot drink whisky any more than beer, we are not laying down a rule but making a definition.
  • 3The Independent Labour Party, for instance, has a fortune of over a million sterling. It is a memorial to past struggles. The party has become a minor and forgotten sect. Its trustees sit on the cashbox like immovable buddhas. Yet if the money were allowed to be controlled by the party, the party would be flooded by outside elements coming in. It is often subject to attempted takeovers (CP, Trotskyists, Maoists etc.) which only the faceless bureaucracy has defeated.