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Unity in Struggle and Struggle in Unity

Long time commenter Mulciber asked me to write about my thoughts on unity within the anti-capitalist left, particularly the marxist left.  They wanted to know my opinion on "how the various kinds of Marxists can get past their hair-splitting theoretical differences and unite based on common interests."  So here follows a reflection on this question.

1: multiple tendencies as an unavoidable fact

Long ago, when I first became an anti-capitalist activist, like many others I was troubled by the proliferation of various anti-capitalist organizations, some of which refused to work with each other.  The most rational solution, to my mind, was for all of the groups to put aside their differences, combine into a single organization, and work together for the "greater good" of post-capitalism.  That is, I naively and uncritically believed that the principle of utility could be applied to the general left and that it needed to be applied.  Such a belief was reinforced, as I'm sure it has been for many others, every time I encountered a dogmatic leftist sect that spent most of its time criticizing other leftists and, in doing so, reminded me of the average Christian fundamentalist who spends most of hir time ranting about the heresies of other Christian sects.  In such a context it is easy to believe that every organization that maintains its own political line is "sectarian" and to seek a solution to this supposed sectarianism.

At the same time, it did not take me long to realize that there were factions within the mainstream left that I could not tolerate.  For example, during the period in which I became politicized, the mainstream left in Canada was only just coming to grips with the necessity of Palestinian self-determination (well, more accurately, remembering, since the left in the previous period of struggle had already come to grips with this necessity before it collapsed in the mid-1980s) and I can recall how this issue was dividing line even amongst the left in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  My hope that every anti-capitalist would be able to work together for the common goal of socialism was undermined in a context where self-proclaimed socialists argued against an anti-colonial position, and thus against internationalism, with a liberal "both sides are wrong" position––something that, even then, I found completely reprehensible.  It thus became clear, and very quickly, that there were real differences even amongst anti-capitalists and that these differences were not simply sectarian quibbles but were, indeed, matters of principle.

Thus, while there are admittedly internecine squabbles amongst the general left that can be classified as "sectarian", there are also principled lines of demarcation that are drawn for very good reasons.  In a first world context that is not yet revolutionary (even if the objective circumstances are ripe, the subjective circumstances are horribly underdeveloped), it is impossible for the movement to narrow into a focused point where a vanguard can clearly emerge and, in this emergence, settle these squabbles by winning over the masses while, at the same time, isolating and eradicating those factions that refuse, out of sectarian pride and a practical divorcement from the revolutionary instance, to recognize an emergent vanguard.  We are not at this point, and some anti-capitalist groups will even argue that we should never be at this point because they deny the necessity of a revolutionary vanguard.  Point being: there are multiple left-wing organizations and factions, many of which exist for good reason, that are either struggling to emerge as the revolutionary vanguard or struggling for a movement that lacks a vanguard altogether.

Here it needs to be said that in the current conjuncture at the centres of capitalism there is nothing wrong with this multiplicity.  Although I believe that it is erroneous to make the fact of multiplicity a principle of revolutionary strategy (hence my rejection of "movementism"), I do not think we should see the concrete reality of multiple left tendencies as something to be feared.  It is just a fact, and a fact we have inherited from a history of revisionism and failure, that can only be overcome by engaging with this multiplicity and, in the process, winning over the masses to whatever organization succeeds in emerging as the party of the advanced guard.  Until then, the fact of leftist multiplicity is something we have to engage with because it is a fact.  And though I realize that some groups operate in denial of this fact, it is my contention that this willful obliviousness will only harm their development.  For even if we believe that there needs to come a time when a revolutionary organization unified in theory and practice becomes the revolutionary organization in a given social context, such an organization will grow into this organization through its engagement with other left-wing organizations.  That is, we can learn from different tendencies; we can grow by interacting with them.

Herein lies the actual distinction between a sectarian and a non-sectarian approach to anti-capitalism: whereas the sectarian will loathe these multiple trajectories, and thus fear the dilution of a pure politics that results from multiplicity, the non-sectarian will accept such a multiplicity as a fact and try to work with this fact.  For this fact is the fact of line struggle, and it is nothing to be feared; struggling with and sometimes against different leftist factions is only a problem if one fears political pollution––and only the cultist fears such pollution.  And yet it is worth repeating, as I have argued over and over, that to adhere to a principled political position is not the same as being sectarian: while we should not fear line struggle, and need to accept that there are currently multiple political positions within the left, it is a matter of principle to argue, especially if one adheres to a line that treats the concept of a party vanguard as significant, that one theoretically unified organization can and should emerge as hegemonic.

The multiplicity of trajectories, then, is a fact that cannot be denied; the hope that these trajectories will be subsumed by a unified organization that can account for interior multiplicity is something some of us believe is worth considering.  To briefly demystify this jargon-laced set of sentences: there was a multiplicity of political organizations in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century that provided the crucible for the emergence of a single vanguard organization that was forced to prove itself in this context; there was a multiplicity of political lines and factions in China in the early to mid 20th century that produced a splintering revolutionary party in the countryside that, by 1949, proved it was the vanguard.  Neither of these world historical revolutions would have been possible without a context of revolutionary ferment in which a multiplicity of political lines vied for dominance and, in this vying, produced the circumstances that could narrow into a revolutionary event where one line, that had learned from the others, would arise as revolutionary.

2: theoretical difference as unavoidable and necessary

We are stuck with this contradiction: we have to work together and we have to struggle against each other.  Work together because we all believe that capitalism needs to be overcome.  Struggle against each other because there are real differences that will necessarily be encountered in any attempt to supersede capitalism.  These differences are not simply the result of sectarian differences but are visceral realities… Take, for example, my anecdote about Palestinian self-determination mentioned earlier––this was not a sectarian difference but a matter of principle that could only result in a different method of theory and practice.  Other examples abound: questions of race and gender during the US revolutionary struggles in the 1960s and 1970s were significant dividing lines––and for good reason!

To be fair, there are theoretical differences amongst marxist organizations that are quite silly, and that nobody these days probably cares about, that result from theoretical hair-splitting that is about as useful as theological debates in medieval Catholicism.  If an organization cannot get past an arcane difference that has nothing to do with concrete struggle, and might only exist in order to define oneself as a more faithful (in the religious sense) marxist than another sect, then they probably cannot work with other members of the left.  Again: this is the hallmark of sectarianism.

But we need to recognize the fact, noted in the section above, that there are principled lines of demarcation that are important and cannot simply be misconstrued as "sectarian" simply because they maintain principled points of difference.  Principled difference is not sectarianism, and those who would like the entire left to believe the same thing and get along as a single organization are often those who, in their attempt to obliterate difference and multiplicity, are guilty of, implicitly or explicitly, attempting to subordinate the movement to their own ideological position.  That is, the political position that often masquerades as "anti-sectarian" is itself a form of sectarianism in that it is actually arguing, even if it is in denial, "why can't everyone get along according to my principles of unity?"

If we should not fear multiple anti-capitalist tendencies, then we should not fear the fact that difference between tendencies sometimes exists for a good reason.  Moreover, we should be prepared to accept that a rejection and furious line struggle against a given tendency is necessary for the development of a movement, especially if this line struggle is intrinsically wed to praxis rather than simply an exchange of polemics.

What I mean here is that in the course of revolutionary practice there often develops a theoretical line, based on what encounters in the concrete world, that sets one organization apart from another.  Take, for example, the development of the political line of the Bolshevik party led by Lenin and how it set Lenin's faction apart from other communist factions in Russia and in the International Communist Movement.  Take, for example, the development of the political line in the communist faction in China led by Mao that set it apart from the original Communist Party of China.  These differences mattered because they had to do with making revolution; to ignore these differences for the sake of some "let's-just-all-get-along" socialism would be tantamount to abandoning revolutionary struggle.

For there are indeed political lines that need to be struggled against and marxist theory has been enriched because of this line struggle.  We cannot forget that Marx and Engels established the foundations of historical materialism and its primacy as the revolutionary science of the working class by waging line struggle against other tendencies in the movement of their time.  The hope, as I argued in the Party as Process, is that line struggles between multiple organizations––which we should not necessarily see as sectarian, nor as something to be loathed––will be won by an emergent vanguard that proves its line in the concrete class struggle of its social context.

3: unity in struggle and struggle in unity

But in the context of upper North America how do we make sense of the multiple organizations and political lines that compose the anti-capitalist milieu when a vanguard party has not yet emerged––how can we find any unity in this context?  I do not think we can argue that the fragmentation of multiplicity is, by itself, helpful since it often results in disunity.  Nor do I believe that the denial of this multiplicity, and a retreat into sectarian purism, is useful since it is little more than a dogmatic exercise that denies reality.  We need to have a unity in the struggle against capitalism while also engaging in line struggle within this unity.

Over a year ago, I wrote a small article on the distinction between sectarianism and principled difference where I made a point about principled unity that bears repeating:
"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 […] 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 its principles will be proven 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… 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."
Thus, we need to find points of commonality in which to struggle together while still maintaining our autonomous political lines, some of which exist for good reason.  Hence the existence of coalitions, and coalitions should never be understood as organizations designed to create a "big tent socialism"––the kind of political approach that neutralizes line struggle in order to achieve a banal and toothless unity––but as moments where different organizations can struggle towards a very specific goal about which they agree.

Several months ago I had the privilege to listen to a Montreal supporter of the PCR-RCP speak about the nature and necessity of anti-capitalist coalitions and how to behave in coalition spaces.  He argued that coalitions were spaces that emerged in order to achieve very coherent, and often quite narrow, goals upon which multiple left-wing organizations could agree.  He also argued that organizations entering coalition spaces should be honest about their own politics (i.e. organizational representatives should not be disingenuous and pretend that they do not represent a specific organization), not treat coalitions as recruitment drives, and overall behave in a principled manner in order to help a given coalition reach its goal.

While it is true, as aforementioned, that the fact of multiple anti-capitalist organizations cannot be denied, and that this multiplicity often exists for good reason, it is also true that the sectarian "hair-splitting" common to some anti-capitalist sects produces political paralysis.  Now it may be a fact that one will encounter, while involved in coalition work, groups that are impossible to work with––groups that might be extremely hostile to your line––to set oneself apart from all coalition work for reasons of political purity is the hallmark of sectarianism.  Self-righteousness is not a politics; an organization cannot prove its line as correct by withdrawing into itself and despising the rest of the left.

4: a smokescreen?

Finally, it needs to be said that all of this talk of "left unity" at the centres of capitalism is often used as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that the anti-capitalist organizations represent, unfortunately, a small population that is predominantly embedded amongst the petty-bourgeoisie: students, intellectuals, and privileged sections of the working class.  There are often calls for "unity" that, as aforementioned, are themselves sublimated instances of sectarianism––the desire of one organization to convince all other organizations to work in a space over-determined by its political line.  And these calls for unity are often accompanied by the a priori assumption that the reason the left is weak is because of this lack of unity amongst a relatively small population of activists.  Every demand to "rebuild the left" in the past two decades is based on this misguided assumption.

If we look critically at the largest street demonstrations in the last twenty years, especially those where every known left organization was in attendance, we find a population that is more static than dynamic––swelling at every crucial demonstration, ebbing between watershed moments––since it draws its membership and supporters from the same social sectors.  That is, we are largely guilty of a failure to embed ourselves in the broader population, especially the most exploited sections of society, and have produced a praxis that is contingent on: calling demonstrations, pulling members from university, doing union support, poaching from other organizations whose recruitment practice is similar.

So the problem is not the supposed disunity of this small population but, rather, the fact that this population is itself isolated.  All calls for left-wing unity at this conjuncture at the centres of capitalism, then, are little more than calls for a small population to work together in the hope that this working together will make it bigger.  Perhaps we would be better served by turning outwards, and thinking of how to agitate and recruit outside of the left than wasting our time with unity struggles, that most often devolve into yelling matches, with those who are theoretically convinced of capitalism's obsolescence.  Perhaps the unity we seek will be achieved when an organization proves itself amongst the most exploited masses, developing into a mass revolutionary organization.

Therefore, while there is a need for various leftist groups to get beyond their theoretical differences (as long as these differences are not liquidated into some liberal banality) and work together on common projects, there is also the fact that this problem is something of a red herring.  The most internecine left squabbles cannot be solved if neither side can prove the correctness of their theoretical difference in their practice.  The ultimate solution, then, is to build outside of the already-organized, revolving door left in the hope that the emergence of a theoretically/practically unified vanguard will force unity.


  1. Back to the old handle! ;-)

    Brilliant essay, and I appreciate your writing it. I'm not sure if your thesis would have made as much sense to me before I started studying dialectics, but ever since holding a reading group last year on Hegel's Shorter Logic with a couple of comrades, I can't help but see everything now in terms of contradictions.

    I feel like you very solidly addressed both the differences between these various organizations and their potential unity, and I completely agree with you on the point that these differences are not always meaningless sectarian squabbles. Rather, they can represent real and consequential political differences.

    Your last couple of paragraphs got to one of the main reasons why I ended up supporting my particular tendency - I felt like they had the best balance of appealing to the broadest possible elements of society while not compromising their principles. And really, I will sympathize with any Marxist group that sincerely tries to do that.

    It’s been frustrating living in a smaller town out west without much political activity, but I still think there's a real difference in my thinking since I moved away from Toronto. Both then and now, I had an attitude that might be summarized as "May the best tendency win," which is essentially an endorsement of line struggle. But my earlier attitude always felt more competitive - boosting my own tendency while mentally dismissing all the others.

    Nowadays, while I still embrace line struggle, it feels less competitive somehow. If I were still living in a major city, I would be making a real effort to attend events hosted by other Marxist groups, because at this point, I would rather learn from everyone and build friendly relations with other groups. I totally agree on the importance of not subsuming all ideological differences under a meaningless liberal "unity" – but I also care far more about the similarities between our groups than the differences.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, and happy that I appear to have adequately addressed your question. Now if only I had the interest/expertise to write articles on some of the more obscure suggestions...


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