Sects and sectarianism - Scott Jay

Religious and revolutionary sects have much more in common with each other than they would generally prefer to admit. Their ideas may be completely different, but their obsession with ideas produces organizations with the same behaviors.

Submitted by Scott Jay on December 28, 2014

The term “sectarian," like much jargon on the Left, is so common that people often don’t even bother to think about what it means.
Technically, a sectarian is a member of a sect, or at least somebody who acts like one. Most people think of a sect as being a lot like a cult, though not as bad. A common comment is that sect-members may act “cultish” or like zombies, which may have some truth but it doesn’t tell us much. The real problem is, why do they “act like zombies?” The previous article in this series attempted to grapple with this problem, looking at how the internal social life of Leninist organizations leads to people hiding their disagreements for fear of shunning and other reprisals. Shunning is quite common among religious sects and is well known to occur among the Amish, for example, a group generally considered to be a sect.
Most people will know that a sect is a small religious grouping or offshoot that lies somewhere between a mainstream religion and a cult. Informally, a sect aspires to be a religion and is less unhealthy than a cult.
Bryan Wilson, a sociologist of religious sects, describes them this way:

Typically, a sect may be identified by the following characteristic: it is a voluntary association; membership is by proof to sect authorities of some claim to personal merit–such as knowledge of doctrine, affirmation of a conversion experience, or recommendation of members in good standing; exclusiveness is emphasized, and expulsion exercised against those who contravene doctrinal, moral, or organizational precepts; its self-conception is of an elect, a gathered remnant, possessing special enlightenment; personal perfection is the expected standard of aspiration, in whatever terms this is judged; it accepts, at least as an ideal, the priesthood of all believers; there is a high level of lay participation; there is opportunity for the member spontaneously to express his commitment; the sect is hostile or indifferent to the secular society and to the state. . . (Wilson 1959)

Of course, not all of these characteristics are negative, the very first and the very last, for example. However, looking at this list it is pretty clear that most Leninist groups can be described as having Wilson’s sectarian characteristics.
But what is a sect? We need a better definition beyond a list of characteristics. There is quite a bit of confusion about what it means to be sectarian as the term is most often defined by members of sects who, deliberately or unconsciously, define the term to leave their sect out of the crosshairs of the definition. It cannot simply be the case that a sect is any small revolutionary organization, or that any small revolutionary organization has to be a sect. The problem is not just being small, as then there would never have been any large revolutionary organizations. Once an organization becomes a sect, though, it is very difficult to break out of the sectarian pattern because only those willing to accept the definition of the world as laid out by the sect will join. This is a small number indeed.
Religious and political sects
We should look first at the definition of a religious sect, as somebody at some point must have decided that small revolutionary groups appeared similar to them. One useful source is Peter L. Berger, who describes various theories of church versus sect typology in his article, “The Sociological Study of Sectarianism.” (Berger 1954)
He first looks at Max Weber’s description, which is that a church is a sect which has become “routinized,” noting that “Church and sect can be distinguished [in Weber’s analysis] by the simple fact that one is born into a church but joins a sect. The sect passes away with the generation that first constituted it.” This explains little about sectarian behavior, either religious or political. If Weber’s view were correct, it would be hard to explain why battles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are described as “sectarian,” nor what to make of an organization like the Socialist Workers Party (UK) that has been around in various forms for over half a century.
Berger provides his own definition, which is too religious for our purposes but points in the right direction.

It should be stressed again that the guiding principle of the definition must be the inner meaning of the religious phenomena concerned, not certain historical accidents of their social structure. The sect, then, may be defined as a religious grouping based on the belief that the spirit is immediately present. And the church, on the other hand, may be defined as a religious grouping based on the belief that the spirit is remote. (Berger 1954)

Converting the religious to the political requires a bit of extrapolation, but if we replace the presence of “the spirit” with “the correct political line” then we have an idea of how left-wing groups can exhibit the same behavior as religious sects. In both cases, there is one pure truth which only the properly anointed can possess. Whether this is definitive for a religious sect, it certainly points us in the right direction for understanding the political sect.
With a comparison of religious and political sectarianism in mind, we can look at Marx and Engels’ description of a political sect in the Communist Manifesto, that communists “do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” (Marx and Engels 1848) Marx elaborated on this in his letter to Schweitzer in which he wrote, “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’–not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.” (Marx 1868)
Castoriadis laid this out in terms even closer to the religious origin of the word, concluding with the damaging role that sects play in the class struggle:

A sect is a group which blows up into an absolute a single side, aspect or phase of the movement from which it developed, makes of this the touchstone of the truth of its doctrine (or of the truth, full stop), subordinates everything else to this ‘truth’ and in order to remain ‘faithful’ to it is quite prepared totally to separate itself from the real world and henceforth to live in a world of its own. The invocation of marxism by the sects allows them to think of themselves and to present themselves as something other than what they are, namely as the future revolutionary party of that very proletariat in which they never succeed in implanting themselves. (Castoriadis 1966)

The “truth” may be a specific analysis of the Soviet Union or simply the fundamental importance of the sect itself, in spite of all empirical evidence to the contrary. Hal Draper elaborated on this point:

A sect presents itself as the embodiment of the socialist movement, though it is a membership organization whose boundary is set more or less rigidly by the points in its political program rather than by its relation to the social struggle. (Draper 1973)

We belabor this point precisely because it is so misunderstood. “Sectarian” often means “somebody I don’t like,” or simply “somebody who doesn’t like me.” Too often, “sectarianism” is an accusation made against ones own critic, as though criticism is inherently sectarian. Rather, the accusation itself is often the source of sectarianism, not the original criticism. That is, it is perfectly reasonable and in fact necessary for comrades in struggle to look at and criticise each other’s organizing in order to deal with real problems, but it is the sect which cannot stand to be criticized. They will accuse others of “sectarianism” in order to cover for their own sectarianism. They hold the only real truth and any questioning from those outside of the select, chosen few is unacceptable. Calling the critic a sectarian is the best smokescreen to cover for actual sectarianism.
Again, this is completely consistent with religious sectarianism:

The behavioral correlates of [the sect member’s] ideological commitment also serve to set him up and keep him apart from “the world” . . . Not only does the sect discipline or expel members who entertain heretical opinions, or commits a moral misdemeanor, but it regards such defection as a betrayal of the cause, unless confession of fault and appeal for forgiveness is forthcoming. (Wilson 1959)

One definition of a sect, then is:
a group that considers itself as holding the eternal truth, and which defines itself not only against the world at large but against other similar truth-holders that threaten the status of the sect.
Sectarian behaviors flow from this, specifically those described by Wilson. The problem is not simply the behaviors, though, as they are merely a symptom of sectarianism. Attempting to improve these behaviors without challenging the assumptions and the structure of the sect-form will only get so far, turning it into “that better kind of sect which believes in not being sectarian,” as Draper described it. (Draper 1973)
Idealism and sectarianism
One description of sectarianism comes from Ernest Mandel, the most prominent European Trotskyist intellectual from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In an early article he wrote on opportunism and sectarianism, he comments at length on various debates and discusses “the correctness of these arguments when used by a Bolshevik party, that is to say, in the framework of a correct political orientation and program of action.” He discusses the importance of the proper slogans and even discusses their “algebraic character.” Mandel’s article is littered with idealism–it accepts the primary importance of ideas, rather than material reality–and is thoroughly sectarian, not because it is so critical of opportunists and sectarians, many of whom deserve the criticism, but because of its fetishism of the correct Leninist program. The sectarian celebrates their rightness in the face of the rest of the world, and this celebration shows just how closely bound sectarianism and idealism are. (Mandel 1946)
For a revolutionary organization, which by definition pits itself against society at large while aiming to overturn it, embracing idealism is a path that leads directly to sectarianism. Focusing on a program or a theory whose espousal is a central task and is a tool for recruitment, rather than developing a practical and immediate strategy for defense and offense in struggle, has no other route than the one that leads to a sect. Whether their ideas are right or wrong is irrelevant. It is the very obsession with the rightness and wrongness of ideas that is the hallmark of the sect.
Members of Leninist organizations join based on their ideas–a very specific set of ideas, in most cases–rather than on their courage, their resolve, their ability to lead, or their role in a social movement. Some join for these latter reasons, but most do not. This means that membership is based not on actual commitment to the class struggle or ability to carry it out, and leadership in a Leninist organization is usually not based on the class struggle either.
The experience of class struggle transforms people. Leninists understand this better than many other radicals, but the problem is that Leninists believe that this transformation in consciousness will simply lead the transformed toward Leninism. There is no reason why this should be the case. Workers whose ideas have been transformed by struggle do not conclude that they need to convince more people to be Leninists, rather they conclude that they need to commit their lives to practical organizing that can challenge capitalism. This difference consistently eludes sectarians.
Leninists have always assumed that they themselves are exempt from this same transformation in consciousness. Again, how can this possibly be the case for people whose relationship to class struggle is merely based on their ideas about it? Their own theories about class struggle altering one’s consciousness would argue against this view, which they might appreciate if only they had not already defined themselves as the enlightened truth holders in typical sect fashion. Even worse, the static leadership structures of Leninist organizations minimize any challenges to the leadership and hide disagreements among them. So when the membership begins to learn different lessons from struggle than their leadership–and how could this possibly not occur?–the structures minimize the impact of class struggle on the leadership rather than allow new ideas to be debated and embraced. This leads to conservatism which is completely unsuitable for radicalizing and rebellious workers who have been told they are wrong by “important” people their entire lives.
Leninists have, invariably, begun their organizations as sects. Those Leninists who dispute this ought to look back at the actual founding of their organization and who they split from and why. If they were to ask even their most respected elder comrades about the origins of their organizations, they would likely get an earful of sectarian bile. They have always chosen to distinguish themselves from their former comrades that they split from as well as the rest of the Leninist left, if for no other reason than the fact that recruitment requires explaining to potential recruits why they are so different. This may make sense (to the enlightened few, anyway) when these groups are only a dozen or so. But then a decade goes by, they have a hundred members and are suddenly in the position to form a healthier, less sect-like organization. The problem, though, is that this first crop of members have been recruited to a sect and the leaders have maintained their position using sect-like methods. Every move away from the sect threatens to a) alienate a vast swath of the membership who might leave and b) threaten the position of the leaders, some of whom may have become accustomed to their full-time position over many years.
The leadership and the membership are then stuck in a deadly embrace, which extends into the leadership itself, some of whom want to remain a sect while others want to breach out to becoming a mass party. Letting these disagreements air threatens the entire operation, as some may lose their positions due to being on the losing side of the mass party/sect debate, while the winners have to worry about the skeletons in their closets being unleashed by the losers. The point is, once the sect road is embraced it is extremely difficult to abandon it.
Which leaves us with the question: what is the difference is between a cult and a sect? This question has no clear answer. Some define the difference as based on whether the grouping is an offshoot (sect) or a brand new formation (cult). Informally, though, the difference is mostly a judgement call as to the relative danger or isolation that members of the group face. A sect is just a cult that you do not worry is going to commit mass suicide any time soon, or be similarly harmful to its own members who might otherwise leave for their own safety if it were not the attraction and pressures of the cult. One might argue, for example, that the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) moved toward becoming a cult once they began covering up and defending the rape of one of their members, as there is no way forward beyond either completely opposing and exposing the cover up or further embracing the cult-like tendencies of defending the leadership at all costs.
“We are not saying,” noted Maurice Brinton in the late 1970s, looking at the Jonestown group that committed mass suicide in Guyana, “that all revolutionary groups (or not even that all those we disagree with most strongly) are like the Peoples Temple. But who–in all honesty–can fail to see occasional disturbing similarities? Who does not know of marxist sects which resemble the Temple–in terms of the psychological atmosphere pervading them?” (Brinton 1979)
“All they lacked,” he added, “was the dedication to mass suicide.”
Sectarianism vs. abstentionism
A common misconception of sectarianism–probably more common among Leninists than anybody else–is that sectarianism means abstention from class struggle, standing on the sidelines because the struggle is not pure enough, avoiding messy work in order to avoid getting one’s hands dirty.
For example, former SWP leader Duncan Hallas wrote an article on sectarianism during the 1980s, a time when his group was “bending the stick” heavily towards theory and away from building an “interventionist” organization, as they would put it in their lexicon. The article makes some useful points–that “abstaining” from the Labour Party is not sectarian, nor is building an independent revolutionary organization, but his description of sectarianism leaves much to be desired–specifically, a better definition. His description of sectarianism is, frankly, sectarian.
“Sectarianism refers exclusively to erroneous attitudes to the class struggle,” Hallas writes.
But what exactly is a “correct” as opposed to an “erroneous” attitude to the class struggle, and how does one determine it? And is the class struggle an object which exists for the purpose of revolutionaries having an attitude on it? The very idea of “correctness” and “incorrectness” displays an attitude common among Leninists that it is their responsibility to come up with the correct political line or program, and their major failings are due to having done this incorrectly. Politics and ideas are necessary, but strikes and occupations are not built on having a correct line. They are organized and defended, yes with strategies based on political ideas and perspectives, but it is not their “correctness” that can be determined but whether or not they lead to desired results.
Hallas also writes: “The essence of sectarianism is abstentionism, on whatever pretext, from the actual class struggle.”
If only this were true! Anybody who has been involved in social movements in a large city in the US or Britain has found themselves wishing over and over again that various sectarians would abstain more often. If only certain groups actually would stand aside with their arms folded while snickering from the sidelines, some meetings and direct actions would actually be carried out more effectively and successfully. Often, these sectarians impose their line on a movement to disastrous effects. They are left wondering whether their line was correct or not while everybody else has to clean up the mess they left behind.
Hallas goes on to criticize the Militant Tendency, the primary socialist competition for the SWP during the 80s, and how they held an “incorrect” line on the Labour Party. That is, we have one sect criticizing another sect, with the ironic–though quite predictable–result being that the definition of sectarian is itself an act of sectarianism.
It should be noted that Hallas was writing at a time when abstention in the SWP was a real danger, which is probably why he emphasized it. The problem with this perspective, though, is that it leads to opportunism, jumping on board any opportunity regardless of the consequences, because abstention is seen as the real danger. In fact, sectarianism and opportunism can occur at one and the same moment, when a group pushes its particular line and organizational needs above the needs of the class struggle, such as promoting its sectarian interests alongside liberals who only want to disarm the movement. On the other hand, abstention can occur based on either sectarianism or opportunism. A group can abstain from struggle because it will embarrass important allies–say, abstaining from opposition to a massive wage cut because it will embarrass the allies who helped negotiate it.
It is a complete misunderstanding of the problem to equate sectarianism and abstentionism and part of the reason these groups cannot escape from the sectarian trap they have built for themselves.
From sect to mass party?
There is a myth among the sects that a mass party is preceded by a sect. Hal Draper described the logic that leads to this thinking:

Since there are socialists in America but no socialist movement, it is understandable that the socialists will say, “Let us go and form a socialist movement.” All considerations argue for this obvious step, and there are no arguments against it: except one. This is the fact–historical fact–that no one can decide to “make” a revolution. Whatever is formed by fiat will turn out to be a sect alongside the other sects. (Draper 1973)

The leading Left organizations in US history have not been built starting from an idealist basis and they have not been built by a class outside of the one that started the organization in the first place. They did not begin as sects working outside the movement, even if they may have had sectarian tendencies or descended into sects eventually. Rather, these organizations were built in order to provide solutions and an organizing base for active militants. There were many bourgeois class traitors who played significant roles, to be sure, but the base within the working-class and the orientation toward building up working-class organization was always there, even when there were pulls in other directions. People built them, and others joined them, not because they had the correct line on anything–far from it–but because they dealt with real problems faced by the radicals among their ranks.
The Populist Party was built by farmers to provide a platform to fight for their issues, not to recruit people who agreed that farmers could change the world. The Socialist Party (SP) was a merger of various forces, among them Populists, German immigrants with a background in the social democratic movement back home and members of the American Railway Union (ARU) who had recently carried out a railway strike that was crushed by the US Army. Among the latter was ARU leader Eugene Debs who was imprisoned for his role in the strike. The SP has become known as an organization of doctors and lawyers and even racists, which is true, but it was also an organization of working-class militants. Out of the SP, partly due to this contradiction, came the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), led by socialists and anarchists such as Debs and Lucy Parsons, who was involved in the eight-hour day battles of the 1880s, to build a militant and radical alternative to the timid policies of the American Federation of Labor.
From the SP and the IWW came the Communist Party (CP) and later the Communist League of America, the primary Trotskyist organization that later became the US SWP, which in its early years led significant workers struggles. Eventually, it became not only a sect but is today is probably even a cult, which goes to show that the same law does not apply in reverse. American Trotskyists would obsess over the continuity described above that ended in their own organization, but continuity is secondary. Whether or not an organization was built by militants involved in struggle is far more important than whether it was anointed by Trotsky decades earlier.
Other mass left organizations included the Students for a Democratic Society, an organization of students which led mass student organizing in the Sixties. Some participants worked toward developing a base in the working-class, and while their commitment was genuine, it did not lead to a mass workers’ organization. Additionally, the Black Panther Party was launched by a group of Black men in Oakland and eventually led thousands of poor and working-class Black people.
In short, these organizations may have been started on an ideological basis, but they were all a response to practical problems and led by people with real experience in militant struggle or were directly a part of the communities they related to, and therefore had a direct stake in the issues they were dealing with.
There are two obvious exceptions to the above. First, the CP was successful in recruiting and organizing thousands of Black people in places like Mississippi and Harlem even though they started with no base in these communities. They did, however, have a background in militant labor battles and the scars to show for it. Jewish sweatshop workers and Black sharecroppers may not be able to relate directly to each other–they may literally speak a different language–but there may also be a commonality in the depth of their oppression and exploitation that can build a sense of solidarity. The CP also had something to offer, not just in their experience in leading struggles but in the prestige of the Russian Revolution. The same is simply not the case of white middle-class college students in the 1960s, or today for that matter.
The other exception is the Bolsheviks, as well as the Mensheviks for that matter. Their roots go back to a small group including Lenin, a lawyer, and the intellectual leader Plekhanov, who hailed from a landowning heritage among the Russian nobility. For these early Marxists, every meeting or newspaper distribution, was an illegal act of resistance that could land them in prison or exile. In a bourgeois democracy, these are mundane tasks that can occupy the time of well meaning students interested in building only an academic study group. In the Tsarist police state, the very act of carrying out these tasks involved subterfuge and organizational skills that showed courage and sacrifice to the workers they hoped to organize and offered skills and lessons that could be immediately useful to anybody attempting to carry out an illegal strike. This is not to mention the early involvement of Jews in the Russian Marxist movement, a valuable connection to a key oppressed group in the empire.
Much of this is speculation, though, as the real answer is that we do not really know exactly how the Russian Marxists built a base among workers and the conditions are so different from those in the US and Europe that it is hardly clear that it would explain anything particularly useful for the Western Left anyway.
The sectarian trap
Few people start socialist organizations with the goal of creating a sect. Granted, there are some people in our society with plenty of time on their hands to go to meetings and talk about things and they will be drawn to a sect because of its own appeal. This may lay the basis for a small ongoing sect, but it is hardly the basis for a larger organization. The large sects achieve their status by being the type of sect that opposes sectarianism and probably even fights sectarian habits in its own ranks. But it is extremely difficult to escape the sectarian trap.
A sect is ultimately defined by the group’s relationship to society, or to the class struggle. It is not a state of mind but rather a state of being. That is, ideas put into practice for so long are not simply ideas that can be discarded but they become habits and assumptions which are enshrined in rules and elected, full-time leaders. The sectarian habits put into practice for so long create a social environment which cannot be easily changed, not to mention an organizational structure that was built specifically to limit the influence of the outside world.
Not only do long-held habits have to be excised, but practices which show short-term “success”–however that is defined–have to be dropped in favor of practices which are far more difficult to carry out. The leaders who have carried through the sectarian program for decades will almost certainly need to be removed. That is, good people will have to be fired from their jobs, and they will stop at little to avoid this life disaster. Even the most well-behaved comrade will turn into an arch sectarian to save their own skin, and since sectarianism has long been the status quo, many sect-members would rather accommodate the behavior of their trusted comrade and continue their organization as a sect. After all, no revolutionary socialist wants to see somebody get fired, much less their own comrade.
Even worse, when the sect confronts the reality of class struggle all sorts of problems are likely to result. The sect leader may become deeply engaged in the ongoings of the labor movement and they may have great ideas about it, but ideas do not make struggles happen. The organic leader of class struggle, as opposed to the sect leader, has a deeper understanding of the problems faced by other workers and they probably have different social pressures applying to them. The sect leader only has the pressure of maintaining face with their fellow sect members. They can say and do whatever they want within the constraints that it will maintain their good standing in the sect. The class struggle leader can do no such thing, in fact they may be able to make little sense at all of sect life. The probability that they will penetrate into the social bubble of the sect is quite low, not to mention the unlikelihood that they would even want to. They are better off being a faithful ally, relying on the sect to provide ground troops for their picket line, where they are actually needed, but keeping themselves at arms length.
The sect wonders why they cannot recruit these organic class struggle leaders who are too polite to say that they do not want to join a sect, especially since they have something to gain by maintaining a friendly alliance and no more.
Sects and capitalism
Sects will insist that they are completely at odds with all of society, and that they cannot be reconciled with the existing social order. Nothing could be further from the truth–sects and and liberal bourgeois democracy are completely compatible. One is a breeding ground for the other.
The sect provides solace from a highly alienated society. There is a strong appeal, not just socially but emotionally as well, which only furthers the sect’s conservatism. Brinton described the appeal of a cult in terms that are, deliberately, quite applicable to the sect:

The key thing to grasp about cults is that they offer a “fulfillment” of unmet needs. Biologically speaking such needs (to be loved and protected, understood and valued) are something much older and deeper than the need to think, argue or act autonomously. They play a far deeper role than “rationality” in the moulding of behaviour. People who haven’t grasped this will never understand the tenacity with which the beliefs of certain cults are clung to, the way otherwise intelligent people get caught up in them, their imperviousness to rational disproof, or the organisational loyalties of various sect members. The surrender of individual judgement is one of the hallmarks of a “well integrated” sect member. (Brinton 1979)

But it is not just the emotional and social appeal that makes the sect appealing. Rather, it is the very existence of class society that gives the sect its lifeblood. Why else would anybody become a sect leader? Or, to put it differently, what is the alternative to becoming a sect leader? For many, it is the drudgery of a 40-hour or more work week, being a cog in the capitalist machine with little to show for ones life and little time or energy to do much with it. The sect itself is the alternative to this dull existence. The sect leader, on the other hand, is assured the admiration of the sect and endless free time. Of course, they have sect duties, but they found the ideas and the function of the sect appealing, which is why the became a sect leader in the first place. The ideas, the meetings, the speaking, all the various activities of a sect are the things they have a knack for, and far more appealing than shuffling paperwork for 8 hours a day. Additionally, the rank-and-file members who do face this alienation find in the sect not only camaraderie but also the hope of a better world.
In all these ways, the political and religious sects are hardly different at all. Only an idealist could possibly look at the two forms of organization and find much difference at all, but the Marxist idealist can live with all sorts of contradictions.
In short, the alienation built into capitalism, the division of society into leaders and followers, workers and management, is the basis for the sect. Ultimately, the sect is completely compatible with capitalist society–in fact, the sect depends on it. The upsurges in class struggle that threaten to overturn all sorts of social relationships affect the sect as well, and their leaders recoil from genuinely militant struggle because the risks and the consequences can have severe effects on the comfortable sect life.
The activities of the sect, then are limited on a) what the sect leaders are willing to do and b) how far the sect members are willing to disrupt the cozy status quo and risk shunning and denunciations by raising disagreements. What is unfortunate is not so much that the leaders are unwilling to risk their positions–any radical, Marxist, anti-capitalist critic of the current social order would expect this. No, what is unfortunate is how little the sect members are unwilling to disrupt the status quo, how willing they are to accept all sorts of malfeasance and even betrayals, even of their own sect principals, simply to remain on good terms in the sect. If there is any evidence of the complete failure of the sect model, it is this. The lack of democracy, the shunning, the inward focus, the inability to come to terms with reality are all merely unfortunate. Rather, it is the ability of the sect to convince its own members to accept the status quo of the current social order rather than throw their own sect world into upheaval, thus losing the camaraderie and future hopes which they hold so dear, which is the ultimate favor that the sect does for capitalism.
The ability of bourgeois democracy to convince its critics to hold their tongues and to retreat to safe and unchallenging forms of protest remains one of the linchpins of modern capitalism. The sect is merely another means to this same end, even if nobody planned it that way.
Sects and bureaucracies
Sectarianism is a relationship to society, while bureaucratization is an organizational response to the outside world. They may be similar in the context of Leninist organizations but they are not the same thing. A sect can be democratic, while a bureaucracy can contain a broad range of opinions and maintain many relationships to people and groups throughout society.
Bureaucratization involves limiting democracy and stifling debate, installing an unchangeable and unchanging leadership, and setting up rules that punish creativity and change. For a sect that sees itself threatened by the outside world, especially when the outside world becomes a part of its inside world, bureaucratization is a common response. On the other hand, a small sect with few members and expectations need not bureaucratize at all. So long as it does not grow or relate to the outside world or expect much of itself beyond the current status quo then there is little need to change the organization anyway. If there is no threat of anything changing, there is no need to stop the change.
Some of these dynamics were discussed in a dissertation by Stephen Rayner, who studied far left sects through the lens of the sociology of religious sectarianism (Rayner 1979). He analyzed four British socialist groups, three Trotskyist and one Maoist, using two variables called “grid” and “group.” Group is the measurement of whom one interacts with (eg limited or extensive interactions) and grid measures how one interacts with them (eg openly or with strict class, gender and race restrictions). According to Rayner, organizations situated in the “weak grid/strong group” category–loose constraint on interactions, but limited primarily to those in the group–have a strong tendency toward factionalism: competition inside the group leading to a high rate of schism. This is where the four sects that Rayner studied are situated, though their relative positions within this framework are much more revealing.
Rayner, drawing from the work of another sociologist, describes an “unstable diagonal” within the factionalist box where the grid and group tendencies are relatively equal. In this stage, factionalism will tend to be high due to an imbalance between openness to the outside world and internal restrictions.
Some of this gets quite complicated and how these features are measured should certainly be open to debate. The point, though, is that as an organization opens up to the outside world it will either need to become more restrictive or less restrictive. Alternately, it can avoid opening to the outside world at all in order to avoid this sort of instability.
For example, Rayner compared the SWP with the International Marxist Group (IMG). As the SWP grew it moved from a loose federal structure to a more rigid “Leninist” formation. Bureaucratization was a necessary result of sections of the leadership fighting each other for control in the face of a membership with new expectations. Eventually, SWP leader Tony Cliff was able to push a series of changes in the organization increasing the “grid”–bureaucratization–which moved the group out of the “unstable diagonal.”
Rayner compared this situation to the IMG, which as it grew instituted a regime of increasing democracy. This was necessary in order to maintain its organizational stability and allow breathing room for the membership in the face of natural tendencies toward schism. Alternately, Gerry Healy’s highly sectarian Socialist Labor League (SLL) traveled the diagonal to an increase in both group and grid–few relationships with the outside world and more internal restrictions on debate and democracy. It was the most notoriously rigid, splintered, dogmatic group of any significant size on the British Left of its day. On the other hand, the small Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism Mao Xedong Thought could maintain a stability and relative openness (within the narrow bounds of the organization’s outlook) by maintaining its membership of about 25 people. Their hostility to the outside world–they called their home base of Brixton “the worst place in the world”– and their millenarianism were perfectly acceptable to their members so long as they avoided people with differing ideas.
Each of these groups had to balance their relationships with the outside world with their level of bureaucratization. The point is, the sectarianism that conflicts with the rest of the world must respond to outside pressure by relative amounts of bureaucratization, or by sticking its head deeper into the sand. In the case of the SLL, bureaucratization helped them maintain their delusions while the Workers’ Institute avoided the pernicious influence of the outside world and therefore avoided bureaucratization.
It should be pointed out that, decades later, all of these groups have shown themselves to be failures. The SWP recently imploded and split three ways over a crisis due the cover up of the rape of an SWP member by a member of the Central Committee. The SLL also met a catastrophic end by splintering in multiple directions after it came out that Healy had raped several members of his organization. The Workers’ Institute was broken up after a police raid in the late 70s–the leaders shortly thereafter secretly held captive and abused three women for thirty years, only to be discovered in 2013. The IMG had the least catastrophic end, splitting in multiple directions in the late 80s after the perspectives of the 60s and 70s had failed.
Three of these groups were among the major left of Labour and left of Communist organizations in Britain–the fourth held merely academic interest. They all failed, though the SWP held out the longest, a victory for its proper combination of theory and bureaucracy. Nonetheless, we cannot help but conclude that there is something deeply wrong with the organizational practices they espouse, not least of which is their mistreatment of women in spite of their professed support for women’s liberation. Throwing in other organizations like the Communist Party will hardly sway us from this conclusion.
Finally, this cursory look at Rayner’s work suggests that we need a much more thorough discussion of bureaucratization, which we will take up in the next article in this series.
Berger, Peter L., “The Sociological Study of Sectarianism”, Social Research, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Winter 1954), pp. 467-485.
Brinton, Maurice, “Suicide for socialism?” Solidarity, March/April 1979,
Castoriadis, Cornelius, “The Fate of Marxism,” Solidarity (London) vol. IV, no. 3 (August 1966),
Draper, Hal, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,” 1973,
Mandel, Ernest, “On the Opportunist Utilization of Democratic Slogans,” 1946,
Marx, Karl, “Letter from Marx to Schweitzer in Berlin,” 1868,
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friederich, The Communist Manifesto,, 1848.
Rayner, Stephen, “The Classification and Dynamics of Sectarian Forms of Organisation: Grid/Group Perspectives on the Far-Left in Britain,” PhD dissertation, University College London, 1979,
Wilson, Bryan, “An Analysis of Sect Development,” American Sociological Review Vol. 24, No. 1 (Feb., 1959), pp. 3-15.



9 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by kurekmurek on December 29, 2014

This is really good. I did not know such topic (studies of sectarianism) ever existed. (Though I do not fully endorse such analysis based on "types). Nevertheless content of the article is exceptionally good for putting ourselves into a critical self analysis. Thank you.


9 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Entdinglichung on December 30, 2014

in a way funny that the text quotes Brinton, who according to Penelope and Franklin Rosemont in Dancin' in the Streets had some guru-type attitudes


9 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on December 31, 2014

Ent... can you extract a sentence or two from Dancin' in the Streets to explain that. My criticism of Castoriadis and expecially the way he was rather uncritically promoted by Brinton and the UK Solidarity group would non-the-less not have inclined me to view him that way - more a case of followers creating their gurus than the other way round.


9 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Entdinglichung on December 31, 2014

haven't the book here at the moment (you've to wait for one week) but it was that at a meeting that people spoke only when Brinton called them to speak