Is debating our ideas sectarian?

Submitted by AWL on 17 January, 2008 - 8:17

The broad church of anarchism incorporates many different tendencies. There are anarchists who carve out “liberated space” living in eco-villages, anarchists who go to demos to join in the ‘Black Bloc’ for a ruck with the police, and of course those many anarchists who read old books and dream of utopia but have no personal involvement in the struggle.

But none of these individuals debate their politics with one another, and those who polemicise to even a limited extent (such as Murray Bookchin) are viewed with deep suspicion. They say that criticism is inherently an ‘authoritarian’ violation of the individual’s free will, and so each is allowed to go off and do their own thing, as long as they call themselves ‘anarchist’.

You think workers have power in society so you should go and build an anarcho-syndicalist union to fight the bosses; I prefer immediate action, so I’ll go and live on a camp with some mates and start an unhierarchical society outside of capitalism. While the sectarian Trots row with each other, the anarchists live out their free society by doing as they please.

But this is a perversion of the idea of ‘sectarianism’, a word whose real meaning is placing a specific group’s organisational interests above those of the working class as a whole. ‘Sectarianism’ is not the same thing as admitting that you disagree with other activists. It is not the same thing as challenging the ideas of those people who have carved out influence on the left.

Of course, the anarchists’ unwillingness to criticise one another or to engage in sharp debate is in part a response to very real problems with the way the Trotskyist left operates. Some recoil from the way polemicists resort to labels like ‘petty-bourgeois’, ‘unMarxist’, ‘centrist’, and indeed, the slander ‘anarchist’, to attack their opponents. Others are bothered by the fashion in which they exaggerate differences and caricature positions ad absurdum to help ‘win’ the argument. The use of personal innuendo, bureaucratic manoeuvres to silence rivals and even physical fights (such as the SWP’s attacks on AWL and CPGB comrades at their ‘Marxism’ event) also serve as clear evidence that the culture of the far left is indeed unhealthy and sectarian.

But the problems outlined above, to the extent that they exist, are symptomatic of a lack of free and honest debate, not too much of it. It is not the criticism itself, or admitting that there are differences, which engenders uncomradely behaviour. Far from it – for example, look at Marx’s work on the Civil War in France. He raises numerous criticisms of the tactics of the Paris Communards of 1871, but this does not detract in the slightest from his glowing reverence for their brave struggle and the comradely tone of the work.

The real problem is the bureaucratic culture of many organisations which seeks to silence or cow critics by whatever means are at hand. Indeed, the anarchist claim that any criticism other people’s views is sectarian bears a striking parallel to the position of leaders of bureaucratic-centralist organisations such as the Socialist Workers’ Party. The SWP’s idea of unity is that its leaders set out their politics without any debate or consultation with the membership, and then activists can agree to follow them or not. Those who raise criticisms are told to go off and join some other group – “if you don’t agree with the leaders, why are you in the SWP?” So take it or leave it – agree with John Rees and Lindsey German or choose to be a “sectarian” and debate politics with other people elsewhere.

Quite why the people who raise criticisms are ‘sectarians’ and are the ones who ‘disagree’ while those who follow the leadership line are assumed to be correct is never explained.

Neither the SWP’s modus operandi nor the anarchist schema of ‘do your own thing’ represent ‘unity’. There is no sentiment of collective responsibility, equal exchange of ideas or recognition that activists should be engaged in a common struggle, whatever their differences. The real ‘sectarianism’ is the idea that any disagreement is bound to prove irreconcilable, so people who disagree should work separately in different organisations and not engage with one another. It undermines our fighting strength, stymies creative thought and reflects a lack of belief in the idea that solidarity could work.

Thinking that the labour movement is unsalvageable and living out your anarchist utopia in a commune is sectarian. Thinking, like the Black Bloc cadre, that people with jobs, pensioners and housewives are useless to a struggle where the primary task is confronting the police is sectarian. Those both place the interests of an activist élite above that of the working class, which is not seen as an important agent of social change. What is not sectarian is seeking to bring together the maximum possible forces while maintaining a culture where no leader has a monopoly over ideas, no viewpoint is silenced and continuous free and full debate allows the development of political theory and a sharpening of our tactics.

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