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Rant on Sectarianism and Principles

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I have often discussed the difference between possessing coherent political principles and sectarianism.  Generally, I'm frustrated with how a principled approach to anti-capitalism is often conflated with sectarianism on the part of people who pretend that they have somehow transcended ideology.  Thus, any discussion of revolutionary parties and vanguards is uncritically denounced as "sectarian" or "religious" or "dogmatic" on the part of those who don't realize that their a priori rejection is the precise definition of a religious mindset.  So once you talk about a combination of Marx, Lenin, and Mao––no matter how critically and with how much depth––or discuss the possibility that there might be a science to revolution, you are immediately accused of fostering sectarianism due to a supposed religious mindset even though, in this context, you are actually being called a heretic.

In any case, partially thanks to all of the uber-sectarian purist communist groups out there, pursuing any sort of party vanguard politics is a surefire way to get yourself condemned as "sectarian" by the mainstream left at the centres of capitalism.  So in this context it is not surprising that some would-be vanguardists either pretend that they "are not really" parties, or at the very worst are some sort of vague reformist party club.  And because of this spurious condemnation of "vanguardism", many individuals who might theoretically believe in the necessity for a coherent revolutionary party will practically avoid involving themselves in such a project.

As I've argued at so many points on this blog (too many to recall and link here, though the last post was a feeder for this one), it is important to make a distinction between political principles and sectarianism because, reductio ad absurdum, being anti-capitalist would also count as "sectarian".  That is, once we define sectarianism as a principled position that necessarily excludes those who disagree with this position, then we should be forced to recognize that any political positionality that excludes capitalists and reactionaries falls under this definition.

But what I have always found extremely interesting is the sectarianism in practice that often lurks behind the anti-sectarianism in appearance––a problem that has become more and more apparent to me in the past year, ever since openly involving myself in projects that have honestly declared revolutionary principles and refused to adopt a vague "anything goes" ideology.  And so in this post I want to interrogate how principled political positions that are not in themselves sectarian are usually treated in an actually sectarian matter, and that this actual sectarianism justifies its behaviour by falsely painting principled political positions it dislikes––and wants to isolate and condemn––as sectarian.

"why can't we all get along??"

First of all, it is important to describe a politics that is both principled and non-sectarian because there are groups who use their political commitments to justify real sectarianism––that is, purist cabals who refuse to work with other groups, while imagining that they are the prophets of revolution, doing little more than berating the entire left ideologically and selling their newspapers.  And yet there are numerous historical examples of revolutionary organizations that have maintained principled political positions without degenerating into sectarian purism; just because these groups hit points of growth and revolutionary development where they emerged as the prime vanguards does not mean they were "sectarian"––all it means is that the masses proved that their approach was correct.

Thus, I think it is pretty clear that an organization that is able to maintain its political principles while refusing to degenerate into actual sectarianism is an organization that: a) will work in coalitions without trying to force the entire coalition to liquidate itself into its ranks; b) will maintain its parallel principles in this organization without apology, but with humility; c) will not intentionally engage in asinine and internecine left-wing turf wars and member poaching; d) will maintain that their principles will be proved in the class struggle rather than in name-calling.  Point being: you are not a sect if you go out of your way to work well with others, even if you choose the path of this "going out of the way" and make sure it is balanced with your political principles.  And yet you don't go out of your way to work with a bourgeois parliamentary party, reactionaries, or a group of extreme opportunists who endorse bourgeois parties and reactionaries; if we are anti-capitalists we must, at the very least, accept that there is such a thing as the capitalist enemy to begin with––the capitalists understand this principle, and they don't accuse each other of "sectarianism" by understanding their class enemy, and we can't afford to act differently.

Generally speaking, I recognize a large number of communists and anarchists as my comrades in a certain sense: those honestly engaged in combating capitalism, who are not endorsing business as usual, and who honestly want to bring into being a better world.  This does not mean I agree with the principles and approaches of these people, no more than they agree with mine, but the difference in principles does not by itself necessitate sectarianism.  (As I noted in the last post, I would be more than happy if all of these general comrades joined multiple parties that tried to conceive of and pursue disparate––but concrete and non-activist––ways to overthrow capitalism.  A hundred flowers, and a hundred schools of thought, etc… We need to stop simply putting all of our efforts into reformism.)  The difference here––where it is not about reactionism or opportunism––is a matter of line struggle.

Now in this context, where multiple groups do exist and some groups imagine they are anti-sectarians capable of deciding the nature of sectarianism (meaning, obviously, any group that doesn't have their politics and is rude enough to declare an alternate ideology), it is very interesting how real sectarianism actually functions.  And I want to give a recent example of this "anti-sectarianism" sectarianism that is the main reason behind this post.  This example is important for two reasons: 1) it demonstrates how sectarianism actually functions to shut down political discourse while maintaining an appearance of openness (just like, it should be noted, liberalism); 2) it matters because it affects real world political contexts where people are actually being oppressed, fighting for their existence, or being slaughtered.

Recently the group I organize with was booted from a coalition because one organization in that coalition was uncomfortable with our politics.  The context was a celebration of the Afghanistan occupation at the University of Toronto where an ad hoc coalition met to plan an intervention.  The problem, according to the offended parties in this coalition, was that our representative at this meeting asked that a supporter of the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan be given room on the speakers list.  Our position has always been, after all, that it is more important to support the revolutionary forces engaged in resistance in the occupied country than simply agitating for "our troops" to leave.  And the CMPA will soon be in a position to launch PW (hopefully) and is the most significant secular anti-occupation force in Afghanistan––this is just a fact.

We did not, it should be noted, demand that other groups in the coalition endorse our political line but we did, just like any other organization, emphasize our political line on one of our websites.  Apparently just the fact that we have a position that is some form of proletarian internationalism and not some social democratic, liberal "troops out" line––not that we tried to push it on the rest of the coalition––was enough for a certain group to push us out of the coalition.  Their argument?  Pretty much that they could not be involved in any coalition where a group supports a specific political organization/sect––in effect, that they could not work with sectarians.

Leaving aside the fact that the position of the unnamed group is an abdication of internationalist principles––or that their refusal to endorse the CMPA actually demonstrates an endorsement of the puppet Karzai government––the larger point is that the tactic of pushing a leftist organization out of a leftist coalition because it challenges your politics, and might in fact reveal that your anti-imperialism is extremely limited, is by itself an act of sectarianism that cloaks itself as some broad "coalition building" principle.  And, more importantly, the fact that other forces in the coalition capitulate to these sectarian tactics is a demonstration of political opportunism.  Sectarian tactics that wish to hide as anti-sectarianism usually count on the unprincipled endorsement on the part of others.  [Edit: the unnamed coalition ended up reversing its decision and acted in a principled manner.]

So what is interesting in these contexts is how organizations representing historically important communist and anti-imperialist politics, even if they work hard not to push their politics on the broader coalition, will be targeted for exclusion regardless of their refusal to play sectarian games.  Simply by maintaining an honest political line is enough to be branded sectarian by groups that operate according to sectarian tactics.

Thus, in order to avoid exclusion and the wrongful application of the "sectarian" brand, there is often the temptation to hide one's actual political line rather than being open and honest.  But as long as we are willing to operate within coalitions in a principled manner––by maintaining our political line but not pushing it on others in a sectarian manner and abiding by coalition decisions (as long as they permit group autonomy outside of the coalition)––then we should not fear expulsion.  In some ways the act of openly representing a principled political line in these spaces is like shaking the tree and seeing where the fruit will fall.  Sometimes fruit will fall far outside of the coalition soil; other times the coalition tree will tell you to stop shaking it with your ideology.