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Issue #1931      September 7, 2020

The real meaning of left sectarianism

This article originally appeared in the Australian Marxist Review October, 1982.

There is much Marxist literature and many practical experiences to show the real nature and content of left sectarianism.

From time to time, those concerned with this issue have tended to equate left sectarianism with Party discipline and the strict adherence of policies and directives formulated by democratically elected higher Party committees.

Left sectarianism can be many things, but it is not and never has been the application of discipline in respect of Party decisions.

Writing in Left-Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder Lenin said:

“[...] the Bolsheviks could not have retained power for two and a half months [...] without the most rigorous and truly iron discipline in our Party”

And again, [in the same work]:

“victory over the bourgeoisie is impossible without a long, stubborn and desperate life and death struggle which calls for tenacity, discipline and a single and inflexible will.”

It is well to recall here that the highest form of working-class organisation is the Party. This is basic.

The best way to prevent the Party from being diverted by “leftism” (or any other deviation for that matter) is to strengthen internal Party discipline in support of Marxist-Leninist positions, not to weaken it.

In “Left-Wing Communism” Lenin not only showed the social roots of sectarianism but also gave the key to the source of the argument that Party discipline can be equated to sectarianism.

What is the social base of sectarianism?

“[...] the petty proprietor, the small master [...] who, under capitalism always suffers oppression and very frequently a most acute and rapid deterioration in his conditions of life, and even ruin, easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organisation, discipline and steadfastness.

So Lenin argues, as Marx and Engels did before him, that left sectarianism springs from the petty proprietor and that this person brings with him a disdain for organisation and discipline.

This is the view of other Marxist-Leninist Parties who also reject the idea that party discipline is equated to left sectarianism.

Robert Steigerwald, an outstanding revolutionary and leading member of the German Communist Party wrote:

“Petty bourgeois radicalism is understood [...] as anti-authoritarian and generally speaking, its adherents consider themselves to be Marxist-Leninists. The whittling away of bourgeois liberties and spontaneity in the face of state monopoly control combined with these radicals’ negative attitude towards concrete communist organisation (and) discipline [...] leads to a fundamentally anti-institutional, semi-anarchic approach [...] it is also claimed a centralised Party under revolutionary leadership is unnecessary.”

Attempts to equate Party discipline with left sectarianism, bureaucracy, authoritarianism, etc. are not new.

In 1903, Lenin and the Bolsheviks waged a struggle against those who wanted a looser party structure. He wrote:

“It is clear, I think, that the outcries against the much talked of bureaucracy are simply a screen to conceal dissatisfaction with the personnel of these centres, a fig leaf [...] You are a bureaucrat, because you were appointed by the Congress not in accordance with my wishes but in spite of them; you are a formalist, because you base yourself on the formal decisions of the Congress and not on my consent: you act in a crudely mechanical way, because your authority is the ‘mechanical’ majority of the Party Congress [...]; you are an autocrat, because you do not want to deliver power into the hands of the old gang. (The ‘old gang’ here referred to is that of Axelrod [...] and others, who would not submit to the decisions of the Second Congress and who accused Lenin of being a ‘bureaucrat’ – J.S.)”

So much for what left sectarianism isn’t.

Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to wage a tireless struggle against ultra “leftism,” but he was also insistent that it be properly identified. This was because it clothed itself in deceptively revolutionary garb and was frequently more difficult to recognise than right opportunism. This remains true today.

Left sectarianism in Lenin’s day – and he said the best example of this trend in the 1920s was to be found in the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party – could be identified by their attitude to three major issues. These were:

  1. The need to assess the balance of class forces,
  2. The need for class rather than individual action, and
  3. The attitude to be adopted by revolutionaries to the reformists.

In the first place, the “lefts” in Lenin’s day, as now, reject out of hand the need to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the various forces in the struggle for socialism. Alternatively, they grossly over-estimate the strengths of the working class and its allies while underestimating their weaknesses giving a distorted view of the forces for and against socialism.

In the former case, various Trotskyist sects go to some trouble to advertise the obvious fact that some of the objective conditions making for revolution are with us here in Australia – a general crisis of capitalism, intensified exploitation of the working people, falling living standards, an advanced economic base on which to build socialism, and so on. What is not recognised is that in addition to the existence of the objective prerequisites, which the SPA* has recognised since its formation, there are also subjective factors which need to be present.

It is clear in Australia that the subjective factors, while taking shape, have never been developed to the point where a revolution is imminent. The subjective factors include a willingness by the working-class to think and act as a class, to cast aside illusions about capitalism, to reject the ideology and policies of reformism and to be no longer prepared to accept rule in the old way. To try to take a short-cut to revolution by skipping over the need to develop the subjective requirements for revolution is a recipe for disaster. [...] The Trotskyists reject the need to assess the balance of class forces.

[...] Georgi Dimitrov gave a similar characterisation of sectarianism to that of Lenin in his report to the 7th Congress of the Communist International in 1935. He said that sectarianism could only be overcome if communists “seriously take into account the actual level of the class consciousness of the masses, the degree to which they have become revolutionised, if we soberly appraise the concrete situation, not on the basis of our wishes, but on the basis of the actual state of affairs [...] Sectarianism finds expression particularly in over-estimating the revolutionisation of the masses, in overestimating the speed at which they are abandoning the position of reformism, in attempts to leap over difficult stages and over complicate tasks of the movement.” He quoted Lenin who said:

“This is the whole point – we must not regard that which is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses.”

[...] Our best shield against the penetration and effects of right and left opportunism is three-fold.

Firstly, it is necessary to ensure the working out of a correct political line, one firmly based on the application of Marxism-Leninism to all our task and struggles. [...]

Secondly, democratic centralism must be strictly applied in working out and then putting into practice the decisions arrived at. The principles of democratic centralism apply to everyone from the newest recruit to the party leadership. It is not a question of democracy for the membership and centralism for the leadership as has been suggested. This is not democratic centralism but a distortion or it.

Thirdly, an ideological struggle must he waged against the dissipating effects of right-opportunism and the isolating consequences of left sectarianism.

The 4th Congress documents adopted this approach. The Political Resolution says:

“Revolutionary change can neither be ‘gingered up’ nor achieved by watering down ideological principles, by failing to take a stand on principle or relying on the development of the spontaneous mass movement. ‘Left’ and right opportunism tend to fuel one another. Leftism gains ground as right opportunism shows its bankruptcy. Right opportunism is revitalised as the futility or ‘leftist’ excesses are repudiated.

“It is necessary to oppose both expressions or opportunism. It is not a question or a ‘balance’ between these two errors but or overcoming the ideological weaknesses which give rise to both. To ‘Left’ and right opportunism we oppose a proper application or Marxism-Leninism.”

Let us proceed to build a united party of socialism based soundly on the scientific principles of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

* Socialist Party of Australia, name of the current Communist Party of Australia, prior to the adoption of its current name at the 8th National Congress.

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