This article comprises of edited extracts from the book ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-capitalist Struggle’ by Roy Ratcliffe. Roy now lives in Leigh and has been working with us recently. You can obtain a copy of the book direct from him by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
The recent question on how to ‘get a General Strike’ by the SWP is sadly a typically ill-thought out rhetorical enquiry reminiscent of the many proposals made by numerous sectarian Left groups in the 1990’s. And it probably stems from the same motivations.
1. The delusion that a few people, usually the leadership of a sectarian group, are capable of articulating the ‘correct’ strategies or ‘solution’ for every stage of struggle against Capital.
2. The attempt during a period of unrest to appear the most radical group in order to attract new members. Such reckless and premature schemes to instigate General Strikes did then (in the 90’s) and does now a great disservice to the actual struggle facing working people. In general there are lots of problems with inappropriately advocating this tactic for it trivialises the preparations necessary for the success of such an important class-wide action and ignores the actual social and economic circumstances which are necessary for its usefulness in the process of transforming the existing crisis-ridden Capitalist system.
The fact that to some people ‘it sounds like a good idea’ – is simply an insufficient reason to raise such a serious question, and particularly on the part of a small organisation, which according to a number of former members, is itself in something of an internal crisis.
In the case of the preparations for a General Strike in Britain by the Triple Alliance (1919 – 1921) despite the incredibly detailed planning (alternative money printed, local committees and food distribution networks formed, etc) fortuitous circumstance and extensive support among workers, the trade union leadership of the day were prepared to, and able to, sabotage the entire project. When the circumstances had changed and the previous preparations had atrophied, the eventual General Strike called in 1926 was easily defeated with momentous and long-lasting set-backs for working people.
The whole history of that struggle has been insufficiently studied, evaluated and disseminated among the Anti-capitalist Left, let alone sufficiently informing the broad movements of working people. Furthermore, the circumstances in Britain in 2011 I suggest, are still far from those which warrant the posing of such a serious and important question, which in any case should emerge from the actual development of the struggle itself, rather than from any individual sect’s urging.
The very question of such a momentous stage in the struggle against Capitalism, needs lengthy discussion and the clear presentation of the successes and failures such strikes have had. For if such an idea is not already being widely discussed and absorbed within and among the organised and unorganised workers it has little chance of occurring. Plus if it has not become widely obvious to all, that such a step and its subsequent implications to many, are not only possible, but millions are ready for it because nothing else has worked, then such calls are premature and can even be self-defeating!
Editor’s Note: e.g. if a General Strike is the only way anyone can ultimately win, why would anyone want to get involved in any action short of that and which must by definition fail? Surely it would be better just to call for the building of a mass popular movement to beat back the attacks we are facing, for more generalised strike action, occupations, demonstrations, rallies and actions which would help to generate such a mass movement? Those calling for a “General Strike Now” really do confuse the first month of pregnancy with the last and in so doing deliver nothing but a still born fetus!
This call by one or two, or maybe even several ‘Left’ groups and not others, also illustrates another crucial problem in the contemporary struggle against the system’s reactionary developments. It is the complete fragmentation of the Left into competing mini-organisations, each one of whom imagine they are the basis of some future leading vanguard which only needs augmenting by a sufficient infusion of militant workers.
The role of such groups in any future mass actions will in some cases be counter-productive for they will not only continue to confuse people with the use of ill-thought out slogans and terminology, but also serve to nurture separate solidarity actions in which they promote their own particular line, irrespective of its resonance or otherwise with the class movement as a whole. In some cases, as they have in the past, they will formally or informally boycott solidarity actions which they do not ‘lead’ or do not fully agree with. In one of many statements about this trend of anti-capitalist sectarianism, Marx noted:
“The sect sees its raison d’etre 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 the movement.”
(Marx to Schweitzer 13/10/1868. Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence. Page 201.)
The date of the above letter is informative with regard to the longevity of sectarianism within the Left in general. Its continuance still plagues the Anti-capitalist movement as it did during Marx’s lifetime.
The effects of Sectarianism
1. It repels serious working people. (Trotsky)
2. Sectarianism is essentially reactionary. (Marx)
3. Sectarians do not create leaders among working people. (Lenin)
4. Where they exist they infect or adulterate the workers movement. (Engels.)
5. Sectarians transform theory into dogma. (Marx/Engels/Lenin.)
6. Sectarianism is a pernicious menace. (Lenin)
The causes of Sectarianism
1. The immaturity of the working class movement. (Marx)
2. Certain people become static and cannot advance. (Engels)
3. A downturn or an ebb in the revolutionary movement. (Trotsky)
4. The existence within the movement of people with force and ability who think themselves and their ideas as superior. (Marx/Engels/Trotsky.)
Editors’ Note: I would also add to this list Roy:
5. Primarily, the promoting of one’s own small group’s immediate or short term ‘party building interests’ before the needs of the movement as a whole.
6. The alien class influence of ‘bourgeois’ and petty-bourgeois middle class ideas in general on the Anti-capitalist movement and especially of those middle class layers within its ranks who think themselves and their ideas as inherently superior (i.e. not just those individuals of all class backgrounds with force and ability who may think likewise!)
7. The general persecution of Anti-capitalists and social revolutionaries all over the world which often leads to the creation of reactionary knee-jerk defensive mechanisms rather than throughly thought out responses to properly deal with that which do not manifest themselves in sectarianism or sectarian practices.
8. A general hostility to criticism, including self-criticism, by anyone else on the Anti-capitalist Left, and a misunderstanding of criticism, or the perpetuating of a thoroughly erroneous view of criticism by others on the Left as an expression of sectarianism on their part or even the definition of sectarianism, which it is not.
Despite any good intentions (or in some cases grandiose pretensions) the numerous ‘brands’ of ‘Left’ groups competitively struggling among the masses, for superior ‘product identity’, have in many ways become a distorted reflection of the capitalist ‘service sector’ – also limited only by their own niche-market customer base.
In addition, without continuous, careful identification and isolation, in the event of a successful, overthrow of the capitalist system, this same sectarianism will also become the main cause of any future post-capitalist degeneration – as it did so disastrously in the Soviet experiment 1917 – 1922, before Stalin and his clique took it to its logical conclusions.
The cures for Sectarianism
Of course there can be no hope of overcoming sectarianism within the Anti-capitalist and wider workers movement unless it is recognised that a serious problem of sectarianism exists, and the extent of the problem it has caused by the lack of sufficient analysis of its characteristics. We need to examine our own and others conduct in the continuing struggle against capital and take the necessary steps to oppose it where it exists. I suggest the following points as logical steps in that process.
1. A determination to get rid of sectarianism.
2. A refusal to allow different interpretations to prevent a positive unity of the Anti-capitalist movement.
3. The elevation of the needs of the Anti-capitalist workers movement above the needs of ones’ own group and questioning the reason for the groups’ separate existence.
4. A refusal to hero worship individuals.
5. A re-examination of the concept of leadership within the revolutionary struggle against Capital.
6. The identification of working-class men and women as non-sectarian facilitators among their class and the Anti-capitalist movement.
We need only ask ourselves a few simple but searching questions at this point. What would be the result of giving such sectarian individuals considerable power? If Anti-capitalist (or religious) sectarians were ever to succeed in their quest to have the working class put them in power, what would happen? If, as a result of an Anti-capitalist or Anti-imperialist revolution they found at their disposal armed forces of coercion with the power and authority to implement their ideas, how would they go about it?
Men of arrogance and extreme bitterness – in control of weapons of oppression and destruction. Some sectarians even without state power can be dangerous enough in unleashing indiscriminate acts of vilification, character assassination, vengeance and even terror, it makes one shudder to contemplate their control of even greater forces. Can we really expect such people to lead humanity into a non-oppressive future?
To see the extreme effects of these political sectarian characteristics, when displayed by men with unlimited power to back them up, we need only examine reality as it unfolded in Cambodia under Pol Pot and in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Once in existence sectarianism is divisive, corrosive and leads to disgust and disillusionment amongst working people and others in the Anti-capitalist struggle and in other struggles against oppression. It could not be otherwise in movements with a humanist purpose, because sectarianism so clearly contradicts that purpose. This much could perhaps have been established by a study of existing sectarian organisations and without recourse to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky.
However, the response of sectarians, claiming orthodoxy with Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky, may have led to attempts to rebuff such challenges. Many are often in what elsewhere, might be classified as – a psychological state of ‘denial’. Alternatively, many undoubtedly claim that their ready-made answers and ‘unshakeable beliefs’ derive from a superior knowledge of their originators thoughts.
Sectarian defensive rationalisation often attempts to represent its bitterness and poison as revolutionary zeal and political steel; their use of logical deductions and abstractions as flowing from their advanced theoretical grasp. Now at least, in order to rationalise any continued sectarianism, Anti-capitalist sectarians will have to take into account their own ideological forerunners.
As a political tendency, 21st century sectarianism invariably repels serious working people and other potential Anti-capitalists, as it did in the 19th and 20th. Marx considered sectarianism as quite simply reactionary! There can be no greater verbal indictments than those encountered so far. The implications of these combined observations are clear. Sectarianism, within the ranks of those opposed to the Capitalist or Imperialist system, can undermine that opposition to such a degree that it becomes a significant factor – if not the most significant factor in the present period. A factor which is effective in preventing unity of the Anti-capitalist forces. In the 21st century it is not enough simply to be part of the Anti-capitalist struggle: in order to further that struggle, we need also to seriously combat sectarianism.
Editor’s Note: We can’t possibly do the latter without understanding what it is, how it manifests itself, and how to fight it effectively. Roy does us all a great service in addressing these issues in his book and will hopefully soon be joining us in the Wigan Borough Green Socialists who share a similar theoretical understanding and hatred of sectarianism. We are keen on stamping it out in our own practices, amongst our own membership and within the still embryonic but growing Anti-capitalist movement that exists within our area as well as farther afield. It is surely the only road to all our future political success in Wigan and everywhere else.
Check out Roy’s Blog at: Critical-Mass.Net – A site for non-sectarian anti-capitalist activists and free radicals