Home > General Politics, Sectariana, Socialism > A fight without sectarianism, is not a fight without arguments

A fight without sectarianism, is not a fight without arguments

The strength in the anti-cuts movement, emanating from the draconian and dangerous agenda of cuts from the existing government, and led in many ways by students and trade union activists, has increased greatly in its current form – and as a consequence further questions are being raised inside it, that extend further than merely “what is it we are against?” (as Tom Miller has rightly written about here).

As the movement grows even stronger, numbers increase and demands start to be met, it is inevitable that questions will get tougher: “Yes, we want change to government policy, but what will that change look like?” and “Yes, the government should crumble, but how do we promote and help form a credible government in its place?”

Many people have been fairly scepitcal of entering into debates on theory, saying things like “save this waffle for the dinosaurs at the branch meeting” – I’m not of that opinion, and I’m also glad of the reference Miller, mentioned above, makes about Lenin (I myself used the Spanish Civil War, for example, to illustrate a point on so-called “left unity” ).

A common criticism of Marx is that while he critiqued and criticised capitalism expertly, he spent less time mapping out what Communism would be like operationally or morally. Perhaps he needn’t have. This, people will say, allowed Communist leaders to do some pretty drastic things justifying their means by their ends, while public intellectuals could excuse killing if it meant a Communistic outcome. It’s no surprise to me that in the periods from WWI to the end of the Cold War the left were not only carved up into Reformists, democratic socialists, revolutionary socialists, utopian socialists, Communists, and Anarchsists, but each of these were carved up in the form of libertarian socialists, Bolshevists, Menshevists, Council Communists (you get my gist).

The left is a broad spectrum, inevitably it will fall out on issues, and at points one faction will wonder why another is being compromised with (why, for example should a statist reformist, work with an an anti-statist libertarian socialist, while he compromises with a civic republican on certain matters). It’s good to belong to a broad church, but differences should be rationalised, and difficult conversations should be engaged – and they should be done earlier rather than later. It is not an option to put off this conversation, no matter how difficult, and no matter how inconsequential it seems at the time, particularly as some of the activism is so exciting and so all encompassing.

In order to steer clear of in-fighting later on, difficult conversations are a must – now.

The movement of students, workers and sympathisers of whatever stripe, with continued energy, focus, and direction, will start to see differences; there was a feeling the night before the tuition fee bill vote that Lib Dem MPs were on their backfeet – we may have lost that battle, but there is a war to be won (a cliche, sure, but you see my point). Unity can bring this disgusting and ideological government to its knees, but as that other cliche establishes, action without theory is aimless.

  1. December 30, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    A very good and very reasonable piece. While people are concerned that organisation will destroy the movement, it seems as likely that the movement will be destroyed without organisation.

    One point I’d make, though – surely the new movement started by the students is starting to note people with leadership potential…? I’m not part of it, so wouldn’t know, but that was one of the reasons I asked on twitter about young socialists in Labour.

    • December 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

      Thanks Kate.

      Undoubtedly the new movement is noting future leaders, certainly there are activists with community and political campaign histories already who have brought their experience to the table. I can think of an individual from the UCL Occupation who has already been tipped in the national press and the blogosphere as a kind of leader – a term this individual despises for himself (calling it pointless ego massaging – the present author can but dream).

      A bottom-up, spontaneous group of activists can survive leaderless, and ringleaders will be cast out as having ideas above their station/necessity – and that sits with me perfectly well. While an organised group of activists are engaged in demonstrations and direct action, though it’d be nice to have financial support from a national union, as well as a national voice (for media presence, interviews etc), it’s not the most important thing while everyone agrees to the terms of what we’re against.

      The difficulty comes from when we have bigger ideas – and indeed those ideas are already presenting themselves with the success and numbers of the organisation – I’ve exemplified some of those ideas/difficult questions in the piece above. At this point the organisation becomes political proper – and it is necessary. It may cause tension and divide groups, but not causally so – if this was how politics worked there would be armies of me and nothing would get done.

      As for significant numbers of young socialists coming through from the Labour Party, I’d be interested to enquire further – as I admit I don’t know on a national or local level.

  2. Tony
    December 30, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    Utter nonsense. As Picasso said of Jean Jacques Rousseau – you are a whining weepy phoney. Some (the Communists) have the right line, Some don’t. Live and learn.

    • December 30, 2010 at 10:54 pm

      Interestingly, Tony, Picasso said that during a conversation about a woman called Dora – who is famous for being one of Jacques Lacan’s patients. Picasso was tired with talking about Dora and her terrible situation. He expressed this by saying, rather selfishly, “”Life is like that. It’s set up to automatically eliminate those who can’t adapt. And there’s no sense talking a minute longer about what happened today. Life must go on, and life is us.”

      It was put to Picasso that that was a terrible attitude to take: “[if] someone fell by the wayside [it wouldn’t be right to say] “I’m going to keep on walking. It’s up to [Dora] to do the same.” To which Picasso replied “That kind of charity is very unrealistic, … It’s only sentimentality, a kind of pseudo-humanitarianism you’ve picked up from that whining, weepy phony, Jean- Jacques Rousseau. Furthermore, everyone’s nature is determined in advance.”

      On that basis I’d sooner be a whining weepy phony and help Dora, than think they know it all and allow people to suffer down waysides!

  3. December 30, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    I guess the movement – like all – has its work cut out finding common ground.

    I thought the range of views was interesting when I visited the UCL occupation (some people were Marxists, some more conservative in their views, while many had voted Lib Dem, for obvious reasons). Socialism was by no means everyone’s theme. I’d imagine that people had, at a guess, very different ideas about the merits of public sector cuts. At the Manchester occupation, I met at least one young man who wasn’t opposed to the notion of voting Lib Dem in the future – he was furious at the fees betrayal, but open to the idea that the party might have to learn from its mistakes and make big concessions (advantageous ones to voters) to survive. Which is not an entirely silly view for people learning their politics from a point of view of public pressure. Others at the occupation took the view that the fees rise and public sector cuts were all part of the same thing, and needed to be fought as such.

    What I’m noticing more and more as I talk to people round the country is that the most successful (as in visual and organised) groups are basically community-driven. I’m not getting a feeling of obvious political drivers. Some Save our Libraries campaigns have had a bit of success – for example, Lewisham and Hammersmith campaigners have forced councils to back down on some proposals, and council tenants in Skelmersdale have managed to push council into better consultation processes.

    I had a few glimpses of the Socialist Party at a Wigan protest a week or two ago, but that’s certainly not been a feature. Labour in the Northwest (Blears, et al) jumped up and down a bit when Pickles delivered the council cuts news (Northwest councils were particularly badly hit by grants cuts), but I don’t recall seeing anything substantial from there. People seem to be forming protective shields around various services in their areas, which makes perfect sense.

    I guess the movement (as started by the students) has unification of all of this as its challenge. What I would say is that people set a great deal of store by the student protests. They often say things like ‘it’d be really good to get some students to our protest’ – it’s almost as though people want to know if there’s a number they can ring to get a few of the feistier students for hire. Something big happened with those student protests, and people still believe there’s a rescue in there somewhere.

    • December 30, 2010 at 11:25 pm

      With your point about Liberal Democrats and public pressure, I agree but can see the limits of this – I suppose if public pressure were all it took then it wouldn’t matter who took office, just as long as there were activists on the ground taking matters into their own hands. But the reason we’ve generally forgotten to this is because our campaign has forgotten what it was like to have parliamentarian support – indeed some younger activists will just assume it is us against them, and frankly it seems like that to everyone most days.

      It was amazing to see other delegations visit the occupation and say “can you send a few of your guys along to such and such” – there really does seem to be an organic auroua around the students and what they are doing – I guess this is mostly because of age (and by this I mean no disrespect of course).

      In principle there should be nothing wrong with different hubs of people campaigning on local issues that affect them, but it is incumbent upon all groups to gel together, because local and community activism should feed into national movements and national leadership and not the other way around. This is why it is promising that delegations of community activists, trade unionists and others visited students, and students returned the favour – it is simply my opinion that as this nucleus grows, so too does the need for real politics.

      The problem of which politics will arise, of course, but those questions are inevitable, incredibly important – they make or break the life span of organisations – and they need to be dealt with before significant gains are made. To be a little historical, many Spanish Civil War historians, though cursing the fascist Francoists and Falangists, suspect that if the splintered cells that composed the Republican army had won, they would’ve been disastrous for the in-fighting; owing to the differences either not spoken about, or had been expressed by actual breakouts of fighting, particularly between Stalinists and Trots, and anarchists against both.

      Having said all this, I believe the movement has it mostly under control – one would hope!

  4. December 31, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Well said. In the same spirit, we’ve rounded up some of the main contributions to the debate in the student movement (including Paul’s on TCF(:


    • December 31, 2010 at 7:45 pm


      I saw your article, it’s a great resource for those who don’t want to have to skirt through the blogosphere looking at what everyone has said – you’ve compiled a best of, but your analysis is spot on as well. Keep up the good work.

  5. January 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Hmm. Though I appreciate the sentiment is a worthwhile one, I don’t think this is one of your better articles Carl. For a start, you haven’t really defined the terms of your enquiry. What is sectarianism? I can see that you are against “the movement” breaking into tiny factions that refuse to work together, but the very idea of “the movement” places some people outside it. The question is, who?

    I don’t think that the answer to this question depends on Marx, anymore than I think the resultant divisions were born from Marx’ failure to clearly and in particular detail delineate what a communistic society would look like, once his theorised transitional phase had been completed and the state had withered away. There is a much clearer answer, in keeping with Marx’ own historical materialism.

    Each of the factions you mention were merely one among dozens or hundreds of factions. That they rose to any particular prominence was due solely to their success in convincing people, but the susceptibility of convincing people was in some part determined by the circumstances in which “the movement” found itself. So, for example, you had “communists”, ably sustained by the prestige of the Russian Revolution and the material benefits this resulted in, whilst being handicapped by the bureaucratic degeneration of that revolution. And each other faction corresponded to a material interest, coloured by limited political perceptions and vocabulary, but each faction also shading into other factions at its edges.

    By the time you get to the Reformists, you’re shading into outright counter-revolutionaries. Thus I go back to my original question, where is the boundary of “the movement”? Is it everyone who picks up a gun against the Carlists and Falangists, in the case of Spain? I’m happy with such an answer – but it doesn’t easily translate to our current situation and, more importantly, it leaves plenty of Doras even still. In our current situation, what are the guns and who are the enemies? This last question is just an inverse of my earlier question – who is the movement and how does each part of it relate to each other part?

    If we skip forward a few chapters, the answer is fairly simple. Democratic centralism, on the old model. Permission to hold whatever views one wishes and to advance them within the party, whilst still cooperating with the tasks assigned following debate by a democratic decision-making body. But try convincing Laurie Penny, the liberal wing of the student movement or their anarchist correlatives of this and you run up against a sectarianism as real as any between socialist groupuscules, and probably more holier-than-thou.

    My own prejudices to one side, it is process which is important. Working together in the student movement is an important first step. There will be other, equally basic, steps to take – such as encouraging students to take the London Student Assemblies or whatever other organisational forums lie to hand and turning them into some sort of representative bodies that can call on every university and hone student sentiment into a weapon that can be allied to labour and pointed at the government.

    I’m fairly confident, however, that this process – if followed through – will result in the ejection (probably self-ejection) from the movement of certain groups. Sectarianism, in short, is really inevitable.

  6. Barney Stannard
    January 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Dave, why do you think sectarianism is inevitable in the left movement when it hasn’t happened in the Conservative party or the Republicans despite the ideological variation in those movements? Or would you reject the premise to that question?

  7. January 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I would. It happens all the time in the Conservative Party, and Republican sectarianism makes socialist sectarianism look like a vicarage tea party. But the word “sectarianism” as political parlance seems to come ready baked with the image of someone standing around selling a paper read by three people and wearing a shabby anorak.

    The difference between Tories or Republicans and the British Left is that we’ve got two and a half small socialist parties and several more socialist groupuscules all arguing with each other without participating in the common life of an overarching party, and competing with each other in the same narrow, politically involved circles, which is not true for the Conservatives and is irrelevant for the US Republicans, as they operate a primary system and not a party system in the British sense.

    Yet even if we had an overarching party, events would inevitably put some groups at great odds with the party line (thus the Conservatives who joined UKIP over their European policies, for example, and who take great delight in pissing on the Tory Party when they can). Some people just aren’t willing to accept majority decisions. And sometimes events can cause the internal life of a party to become corrupted so that it is no longer democratic – thus the groups which in dribs and drabs have left Labour over the years.

    “Sectarianism” is just another feature of political life, and like any such feature, there are always those who take it too seriously.

    Blogs tend to intensify it by virtue of allowing a distance between protagonists that isn’t available in real life. For example, I rail at Sunny Hundal fairly often, but ultimately if we were in the same political party, and that party had democratic structures we both had confidence in, I’d still subject myself to the common work and life of that party even while castigating him for being an opportunist, and while he castigated me for being an unrealistic purist.

  8. January 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm


    I hoped that the to answer some of your queries would be found in the title; difference between groups with many common aims is inevitable, and we wouldn’t have it any other way I’m sure, but ultimately I agree with the sentiment you ended your last comment with (“I’d still subject myself to the common work…”).

    What your comment on reformists reminded me of, is what I think should be the next stage in this particular debate: on what basis should the lines of unity be drawn up upon (socialism, the “left”, all people who oppose the way the cuts have been dealt, all opposition to the coalition government?). I tried to explain that I often feel it rather arbitrary to expect statist socialists like myself to work with anti-state anarchists.

    I suppose that politics is inevitably an exercise in dividing people in the sense that I, for example, would refuse to work with far right opposition to cuts if they felt they should bring to the table racist ideas to work towards – I think it’s incumbent upon people who preach “left unity” to define what they mean, and if it’s easier to work with Conservatives influenced by Thomas Paine and asset-egalitarianism (for example) than it is an anarchist whose sole aim is to destroy the mechanism of government on the grounds that government is inevitably a protection of private property, do we not shoot ourselves in the foot by working towards (what I think is meant by) left unity?

    As socialists, I would like to see the emerging movement of workers and students, which will come to the fore in the series of marches and action in March this year, as coloured by socialism, and I will hopefully bring this to the table; but ultimately what spurred me to write this particular entry is the refusal of some to have such a conversation on the grounds that it is an exercise in pointless theory – which takes time, where that time may be spent doing something else like occupying a minister’s offices somewhere. My point is that such a discussion, on the aims of the movement, and not just the pet hates of it, is invaluable, and could be difference between a durable movement and a movement which regularly meets dead ends.

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