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Of Parties and Sectarianism: A Report on the Second Canadian Revolutionary Congress

There was a time, back when I first became involved in activism, where I imagined that organizational spaces would be these beautiful places free from oppression and egotism and that, because we all had similar politics, would signify in practice the politics we wanted to see manifest.  I never discovered that ideal organizational space: instead I witnessed organizations collapse, people burn out and drop away, the rise of activist arrogance, and the failure to produce a political practice or basis of ideological unity that was capable of responding to the overall reality of capitalism and imperialism.

This is not to say that my past experiences in activism were not worthwhile.  Some of my closest friends and comrades, and some of my most politicizing experiences, happened in my long march through these solidarity groups, student groups, and anti-imperialist networks.  And the experiences of my labour union, its radical working groups, and the three month long strike taught me a lot about solidarity and political organizing.  But when the strike ended in shambles I was finally convinced that Lenin was correct about trade union consciousness being utterly different from revolutionary consciousness: myself and several other union comrades began to seriously discuss the concept of party building and the need for an organization that was larger and more focused than the typical activist organizations, that was more focused than a labour union that, however radical it could sometimes be, united people on the basis of their work rather than ideology.

Returning to the notion of the party is somewhat scary for those of us who were politically educated in spaces that have always been suspicious of parties and vanguards––even if no one can actually explain what these concepts mean or how they have been articulated historically.  The shibboleth of the vanguard is often used by activists to denounce egotism, and often hypocritically: the activists who often denounce a crude notion of “vanguardism” are the same activists who act according to this simplistic notion.  Arrogant and egotistical, they reject an organized party while fostering a disorganized authority that is never properly recognized as authoritarian because they claim they’re anti-authoritarian.  Affinity group Blanquism.  Anarchist cabals and the authority of the deed.  A ban on speaking about the implicit authoritarianism has led, in so many of these groups, to an inability to be self-critical and create structures that prevent arrogance, activist super-stardom, burn-out, and petty disputes.  The failure to draft a proper ideological line beyond anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism––the failure to even discuss what this means theoretically––ultimately leads to a lack of direction.

Thus, I was excited to participate in the second Canadian Revolutionary Congress that was held in Toronto on December 11th by the Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada [PCR-RCP].  Two years earlier, when some of us were beginning to take the concept of the party seriously after our strike, I had already encountered the PCR-RCP’s programme and had even helped organize a reading group around its claims.  Already, because of what I was beginning to accept as a proper ideological position, I was sympathetic to the PCR-RCP.  Already I was impressed by what they had accomplished, and how quickly they had grown and developed, in the years following their founding in Quebec.

Relations Between People

Being impressed by an organization on paper is very different, however, than being impressed by them in reality.  As aforementioned, my experiences with activist groups were uneven at best.  Like so many others I was severely burned out; I was also skeptical of a day long congress that might possibly filled with arrogant communists who liked hearing themselves speak.  I have a low tolerance for the “I’m-more-radical-than-thou” schtick––I can’t deal with activist kids who, knowing nothing about the background and theoretical understanding of other people, feel the need to “educate” strangers with a condescension that contradicts the politics they’re supposed to represent.

My experience of the second Canadian Revolutionary Congress, however, was not at all what I expected.  I have never been in an organizational space like the one I experienced on December 11th, nor have I ever been involved in a large political discussion with the content and form that was demonstrated at the CRC.  The lack of arrogance, the relaxed atmosphere, the unwillingness to make anyone feel unwelcome––all of this spoke to a practice that was serious about making manifest the politics they preached.  I cannot remember ever feeling so invigorated in a progressive meeting space.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Maoism was its theory of organization––most specifically the mass-line and its focus on self-criticism.  Writings such as Combat Liberalism, for example, describe how to interact with comrades and other people, why it is important to always be critical of one’s position, and why even political radicals––no matter how correct they might believe they are––are prone to arrogance and authoritarian behaviour.  Self-criticism, reconciliation, humility are essential to Maoist style organizing: “The people and the people alone are the motive force in the making of world history,” Mao wrote, “while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant.”  And so many activists behave with childish ignorance towards the people they claim to represent.  So many activists spurn self-criticism as a thing of the pass and will even argue for their correctness even in the midst of mistakes, refusing to apologize or reconcile with other activists.  Organizations have fallen apart because of this unyielding self-love––this bourgeois ideology we are so willing to criticize in everyone else but ourselves.

Of course, Maoist theory might promote self-criticism as a theory but practice is an altogether different matter.  The representatives of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada (and this might set them apart from the American RCP), however, interacted with each other and everyone else in a way that was beyond most of the petty bickering and sublimated competition I’ve witnessed in other groups.  There was definite camaraderie and a respect for peoples’ varying class positions, experience, age, gender, and culture.  For example, there was a man behind me who spoke a very “artsy” discourse because he was an artist and worked in an PCR-RCP cell that was focused around art production.  I’ve seen people who speak like this laughed at as “flaky” and excluded from properly serious political groups.  But in the congress space he was taken seriously and never with disdain.

In the breaks between the long discussions, interacting with the Quebec PCR-RCP members on a more personal and jovial manner, I was even more impressed.  These were not people who radiated the more-radical-than-thou attitude.  And though I assume that these types of activists might probably join the PCR-RCP, and may even be engaged in some of their cell groups, the representatives of the organization at the Congress were a type of activist I have only met a few times in my life. 


What also made the CRC compelling was the framing of the discussion in the opening session, a framing that spoke to the problems many of us have experienced in previous organizational spaces.  The first speaker, Gabrielle, argued that the Canadian left so far has failed, the movement is weak and acts defensively.  Anarchist practice has been successful in responding to problems, it has done so in a disunited manner without any clearly thought out or communicated ideology that will push towards the end of capitalism.  Current communist practice, however, while openly proclaiming traditional revolutionary ideology has demonstrated a gap between theory and practice: we speak of revolution and communism but, at the same time, accept the conditions of constraint––the legal framework of the ruling class.  And this framework of bourgeois freedom encourages opportunism; there is a hypocrisy in speaking of revolution while at the same time promoting bourgeois democracy by our actions.

The point was that we need to close the gap between words and action, theory and practice.  Moreover, if we continue to split our words from actions we will keep accepting new rules of narrower restraint––the parameters of bourgeois legality begin to close the longer we stay within their confines.

Since one of the motions of the CRC was about pursuing a boycott of the next federal elections, the discussion of the gap between words and action was important.  The PCR-RCP was arguing that election boycotts are part of a mass line: we need to listen to the anger of the people and make it conscious, theorized, and acted upon.  If the vast majority of Canadians do not vote and if, as Lenin argues, people “vote with their feet”, then there already is, in effect, an implicit boycott.  Implicit boycotts do not matter, however, because the bourgeois system will not recognize these as boycotts unless they are made explicit.  If the people are already “voting with their feet” by spontanteously rejecting the confines of bourgeois parliamentarianism, our job is to make this rejection conscious and powerful.  

Throughout the discussions and presentations the problem of the gap between theory and practice became the central theme.  So did the discussion of what constitutes the revolutionary class, the principal contradiction between the First Nations and the Canadian state (colonizer-colonized contradiction), how we should organize,  how we should understand ourselves in relationship to the people who need organization, and how we should properly cognize the difference between principled communist party building and sectarianism.

One of the things we need to ask ourselves as communists is why we have failed to lead the various and important struggles of the oppressed.  Why is it that we continue to work with labour unions  rather than spend our energy with those affinity groups directly involved with anti-state and anti-imperialist activities.  What has happened is that anarchist and/or anarchist-influenced organizations have been far better with their political practice than communist organizations.  And yet, since the anarchist method generally lacks strategy, these movements tend to start broad and then, unable to unite around a common ideology and structure, fall apart or stagnate when the struggle deepens: people get used up or drop off, there is burn-out and political disaffection.  Nor are they able to properly cognize the goal of an anti-capitalist society: what did this practice accomplish at the G20, either than demonstrating a necessary frustration with capitalism and imperialism?  What has happened to those affinity groups, what are they building towards in the aftermath of state infiltration and repression?  The struggle as deepened and, lacking this understanding from the beginning, they are indeed incapable of dealing with the change.  Before the G20 there was the FTAA and before that Seattle: all mass movements that fell apart, believing strength was in disunity and disdaining structure and ideological accountability.

At the same time, however, this “anarchist” practice is actually acting against capitalism.  So there is a struggle being waged against capitalism but, due to its rejection of ideological structure, it is a disunited struggle.  “We imagine that all of these separate movements will magically add up,” one discussant argued, when it is clear that they have not added up: the spontaneous anti-capitalist sentiments of the most disaffected sectors of society have not mystically translated into a sustainable and militant anti-capitalist movement.  Hence the need to link immediate/specific struggles to the broader struggle, to link specific oppression to the broader oppression––to bring the oppressed together rather than allowing them to become disunited along identity lines.


Pursuing this strategy, however, requires a rejection of sectarianism.  This was a point made implicitly during the congress but is something I think requires more discussion, mainly because I am getting tired of the way sectarian is used as a slur against people who adopt a principled position and because I cannot stand actual sectarianism and the dogmatism it implies.  The failure to distinguish between principles and acting in a sectarian manner has always been a problem amongst the left and has led either to the liquidation of politics within social democratic organizations on one hand, or cultic self-righteousness and dogmatic purity on the other. 

There is a massive difference between pursuing a specific revolutionary ideology and sectarianism.  I am tired of these two categories being conflated and the confusion this conflation has caused.  I doubt someone would call contemporary medical science sectarian because it rejects, say, phrenology as incorrect.  Nor would we want a medical science that refuses to develop, to experiment, to learn from other sciences, and remain open to the future.

Due to the sectarian practices of so many marxist cults/cabals, however, the difference between correct principles and sectarianism is not properly understood.  Those who subscribe to an anarchist and/or anarchistic method of practice would probably, and falsely, argue that believing in building a communist party that follows a specific ideology is synonymous with sectarianism.  But if that is the case, then we can stretch that logic further to argue that being anti-capitalist and anti-reformist is equally sectarian and that we should all work within the confines of the NDP.

So how do we understand the difference between sectarianism and accepting a specific communist vision?  How can we critique the revisionist actions of some communist groups while at the same time not being sectarian?  The type of logic that would argue that pursuing any specific and coherent ideology is sectarian is the type of logic that muzzles critique––it also devolves into post-modern relativism where principled critique is judged as terrorizing and totalistic.

Of course, real sectarianism is always a danger.  To refuse to work with other groups, to dismiss people who have done good work simply because you do not believe with their specific radical ideology, paralyzes the movement and causes disunity.  Even if you have the correct position, your actions are incorrect if they lead to this paralysis and a confusion amongst the people you are supposed to be working for.  There was a lot of discussion at the CRC about this problem, about how to act in solidarity with other groups, and how the RCP was not willing to engage in that infantile leftist turf war we have seen time and time again.

“Being right is important,” one PCR-RCP presenter argued, “but we shouldn’t seek to be right just for the sake of being right.”  The point is that acting is also important.  Moreover, if “we are both students and teachers,” then we cannot always assume that our strategy and practice is universally correct.  What was interesting about how the PCR-RCP cognized its party building was that they viewed it through this principled but non-sectarian lens.  Unwilling to launch a vicious and self-righteous recruitment drive, they conceive of their activities within common fronts as a “line struggle.”  In other words, they hold that if their position is correct than people will want to join their group and engage in party building.  Otherwise, since “correct ideas come from the masses” they are willing to admit that they are wrong, change their ideology, or dissolve into another group that is building a proper party.  And since their practice has already earned them the respect of other leftist organizations in Quebec, and they have grown by stunning leaps and bounds since forming several years ago, there is clearly something compellingly true and honest about their position.

Nor did I feel, at any point during the proceedings, that the 2nd Canadian Revolutionary Congress was a recruitment drive.  They wanted solidarity around certain motions, and those people present representing other groups to work with alongside them, engage with line struggle, and to be comrades.  One delegate from a Toronto organization even made a joke about how “maybe we’ll join you and maybe you’ll join us,” and everyone laughed about the discourse of competing amongst the masses.

When the congress closed we all sung the Internationale in various languages and translations, a symbolic act of solidarity that I had experienced throughout the entire day.  I do not know if the PCR-RCP represents the germ of a nationwide political party, but I do know that their behaviour and professionalism has placed them on a different level of politics than other groups and organizations I've known in the past and that succeeded in burning me out.  I also know that the attitudes and activities of those other marxist groups who claim to be "the vanguard" have lacked any solid connection with the masses and have ended up being either truly sectarian or opportunistically reformist.  Nor do I think the PCR-RCP's leadership and rank-and-file will be overly disappointed if another group does a better job of understanding the Canadian contradictions and building a party––they appear to be more than willing to dissolve into whatever the more successful party might be, and this speaks to their rejection of dogmatic sectarianism.

Oh yeah, and the artist sitting behind me expropriated my pen.  That's okay: it will be put it to better use in an PCR-RCP art collective...


  1. I am quite upset that I did not manage to make it to this.

    When I read RCP statements for the first time I could not help but become excited. Like you I was an activist, I was also a lower ranking member of my local's executive board. It frustrated me and burned me out.

    I spent some time overseas and tried to put that stuff behind me. What happened though was the opposite; seeing and being a part of an imperialist war shook my conscience. Reading the RCP material and the things posted and referenced on this site have made me feel as if I'm back from the dead.

    Thanks for posting your experience of the CRC. Things you mentioned such as the anti glob movement's failure to push forward, to questioning our relationships with trade unions really hit home. I'm happy to hear there was open, honest, discussion and critique.

    When I was part of the SP, the sub-group I belonged to would often attend meetings/conferences in Toronto. We were all workers straight from the plant floor and I will never forget how we would discuss the need to get past having campaigns for the sake of having campaigns to bulding a revolutionary party and movement. Whenever we would bring this up with the academics we would get "we're not there yet". I remember stating "how do we get there without a plan?"

    Anyway. I'm rambling. The point is, reading about the RCP has me thinking about what a revolutionary party (and the attendant Red Army) would look like. It has me thinking there may be a space for a worker who knows a thing or two about line of sight and keeping one's heels down.

    Thanks again JMP,


    I must ask,
    did you suspect an RCMP or CSIS presence?

  2. Glad you liked the post. I can't speak to there being an RCMP or CSIS presence, but I will say that the way the meeting was handled (only people who could be checked out were invited, the place was in an undisclosed location, no one used their real names) spoke to a certain level of discipline.

    In any case, the boycott movement they're promoting will be open and a place where many people can participate. Otherwise it wouldn't really work, would it?

  3. Bravo on this post, JMP! I also found the congress refreshing and inspiring: especially the discipline of folks in the room and their commitment to a strategic struggle. While politics of expression--venting anger publicly--are necessary for symbolic reasons, they are futile in this political moment.

    I definitely look forward to putting into practice some of the programmatic items discussed at the meeting.

  4. Glad you liked the post, though it was a bit long... Good point on the "politics of expression."

  5. I think the boycott campaign makes great sense and is rooted in a real appreciation of where the masses are at with electoral politics in Canada. It's also a smart move as it works as a counter to the labour aristocracy's constant calls to working people to be involved in elections (especially elections which may result in tax grants/subsidies to their bourgeois masters).

    By the way, I'm reading Settlers and am amazed at how well it squares with what my mother and grandfather had to say about the foundation of the U.S. (and Canada). It's so relevant that I've been directing my native co-workers to the website where they can read it in full on pdf.

    It's no little irony that just as you present this book, some of the locals are putting together a resistance to the proposed transformation of a lake into a tailings pond. One young woman is circulating a petition and has asked some of us to sign it and we've agreed. Of course, many employees here won't sign, as they see their interests tied directly to the mine owners, environment or native rights be damned.

    Thanks again JMP for all the hard work you do on this site. Never fret, the message is getting out.


  6. Reading this was riveting. I wish there was a party or something like this in the States. I've been the the PCR-RCP website but many of the links (eg: their about page) are dead. Is there somewhere I could learn about how PCR-RCP began?

    1. You might have encountered the old page and not the new one. Sometimes searches throw you to that one rather than the current one; not sure why. Also, I need to update my links because they're keyed to the old page. Go to for the current website.

      As for learning about the party's history, there is a 2012 talk by a party supporter at a conference in Chicago that gives a good overview. The audio recording can be found here:


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