An End to Sectarianism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Oct 15 17:44:28 MDT 1995


It is necessary to see this bleak period we are in today dialectically.
While global capitalism has beaten back revolutionary and socialist
forces across the planet, there are countervailing tendencies. If you
think of the last ten years or so as one of scorched earth for progressive
forces, we can already new green shoots appearing here and there.

The cause of this tender fresh growth is capitalism itself. Capitalism
has triumphed over "actually existing socialism". Yet it is also creating
a new and crueler set of class relationships that propel workers and
peasants of the world into action. They have no choice. As the masses
begin to move against the capitalist system, they will begin to consider
new ways of organizing themselves. The last ten years have left the
CP's in shambles. They have also taken their toll on ultraleft sectarian
Trotskyist and Maoist formations. This means the oppressed will have
to look for alternatives. That is the most positive thing that could be

One of the first fresh, new formations to emerge in this generally
reactionary period was the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers
Party, of Brazil. Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a worker and a trade union
activist, was part of number of workers, intellectuals, Catholic Church
priest-activists who saw the need for a new socialist party in Brazil.
They thought the CP and SP of Brazil were too ready to compromise
with whichever politician on the scene who best represented the forces
of the "progressive" wing of the capitalist class. Another ingredient in
the formation of the Workers Party was the conscious leadership of ex-
Trotskyists who gave the new group badly needed organizational
knowledge. This, I submit, is the best role for Trotskyists around the
world today: to dissolve their parties and help to form broader, non-
sectarian formations like the Workers Party of Brazil.

Lula was born in 1945, the year of my birth, in the poor northeastern
town of Garanhuns, Pernambuco. He was the youngest of 8 children
born to Aristides and Euridice da Silva, subsistence farmers. In 1956,
the family moved to Sao Paulo, where they dwelled in one room at the
back of a bar. They shared the bathroom with bar customers.

At the age of thirteen Lula went to work in a factory that manufactured
nuts and bolts. There were 12-hour work shifts at the plant and very
little attention paid to the safety and health of the workers.
Consequently young Lula lost the little finger of his left hand.

Lula, whose older brother was a CP'er, became a union activist in the
early 1970's. In 1972, he won election to the Metalworker's Union
directory board of Sao Bernando. Three years later, he became
president of the union. He won with 92 percent of the vote from the
140,000 members.

In the late 1970's, a wave of labor militancy swept Brazil under the
impact of IMF-imposed austerity. Lula's union struck the Saab-Scania
truck company in May of 1978. It was the first large-scale strike in a
decade. Lula spoke to a strike assembly for the first time there. On day
one of the strike, workers showed up but refused to operate their
machines. The struggle spread to other multinational automobile
companies. At the end of the second week, some 80,000 workers were
on a sit-down strike. Their strength caught the government by surprise
and it could not mobilize the army in time. The strikers won a 24.5
pay increase.

This was the background of the formation of the Workers Party. A
founding convention on February 10, 1980 launched the party. Lula
addressed the 750 attendees, "It's time to finish with the ideological
rustiness of those who sit at home reading Marx and Lenin. It's time to
move from theory to practice. The Workers Party is not the result of
any theory but the result of twenty-four hours of practice."

At the Seventh National Conference of the Workers Party in May
1990, the party defended socialism without qualifications. The
collapse of bureaucratic socialism throughout the Soviet bloc inspired
the document appropriately called "Our Socialism". The party upheld
democratic socialism everywhere. The document said, "We denounce
the premeditated assassination of hundreds of rural workers in Brazil
and the crimes against humanity committed in Bucharest or in
Tiananmen Square with the same indignation. Socialism, for the PT,
will either be radically or it will not be socialism."

In section seven of the document, the Workers Party explained its
conception of how to build a revolutionary party. "We wanted to avoid
both ideological abstraction, the elitist offense of the traditional
Brazilian left, and the frazzled pragmatism of so many other parties. A
purely ideological profundity at the summit would serve no purpose
unless it corresponded to the real political culture of our party and
social rank-and-file. Besides, the leadership also lacked experience
that only the patient, continuous, democratic mass struggle could

Compare this with James P. Cannon's declaration that his minuscule
Trotskyist faction was the "vanguard of the vanguard" in 1930. The
Workers Party leadership had already led mass strikes against the
bosses, broad struggles for democratic liberties and ecological
movements, including the one that sacrificed the life of Chico Mendoza, a
party member. Yet it says that it "lacked experience". This type of
modesty coming from forces obviously so capable of leading millions
in struggle is truly inspiring.

Just three months earlier, in January 1990, Joe Slovo, a leader of the
South African Communist Party took a look at socialism's future. Did
it have a future after the collapse of Soviet-style communism? He, like
the Workers Party, came down strongly in defense of both democracy
and socialism. He discusses these issues in "Has Socialism
Failed". Slovo was a Lithuanian Jew by origin and led the African
National Congress guerrilla army "Spear of the People". Slovo died of
cancer shortly before Mandela's historic election victory.

The SACP had also gone through a profound reevaluation of the whole
question of "vanguard" politics and had reached conclusions similar to
the Brazilian Workers Party. In a section entitled "The Party as a
Vanguard and Inner-Party Democracy", Slovo put forward a set of
ideas that are refreshingly non-sectarian.

"We have always believed (and we continue to do so) that it is
indispensable for the working class to have an independent political
instrument which safeguards its role in the democratic revolution and
which leads it towards an eventual classless society. But such
leadership must be won rather than imposed. Our claim to represent
the historic aspirations of the workers does not give us an absolute
right to lead them or to exercise control over society as a whole in
their name.

Our new programme asserts that a communist party does not earn the
title of vanguard merely by proclaiming it. Nor does its claim to be the
upholder of Marxism give it a monopoly of political wisdom or a
natural right to exclusive control of the struggle. We can only earn our
place as a vanguard force by superior efforts of leadership and
devotion to the cause of liberation and socialism. And we can only win
adherence to our ideology by demonstrating its superiority as a
theoretical guide to revolutionary practice.

The approach to the vanguard concept has not, as we know, always
been adhered to in world revolutionary practice and in an earlier
period we too were infected by the distortion. But, in our case, the shift
which has taken place in our conception of 'vanguard' is by no means a
post-Gorbachev phenomenon. The wording on this question in our
new programme is taken almost verbatim from our Central
Committee's 1970 report on organization."

SACP members at this point were central leaders of the African
National Congress, a liberation movement that had won the allegiance
of black South Africans. The SACP in its own right was popular
among the masses. Afrikaner government agents assassinated Chris
Hani, another leader of "Spear of the People". Hani was also a member
of the CP and popular among the most oppressed of the South African
black population. This mass party that had led a liberation struggle to
victory and which had a massive working-class base was still modest
enough to declare that it was not yet a vanguard. What an interesting
phenomenon. The larger a revolutionary party is and the broader its
influence, the less need it has to blow its own horn. Contrast this with
the bombastic self-aggrandizement of the dozens of tiny Maoist and
Trotskyist groups in the United States and Europe.

The South African Communist Party was not the only CP that was
going through profound changes in 1990. In eastern Europe and the
Soviet Union, the break-up of the old-style bureaucratic machines has
thrown the CP's into a major crisis and caused many of them to split in
pieces. Many CP bureaucrats simply became defenders of the new
"free-market" orthodoxy. Boris Yeltsin is the most notable example of
this. Some CP's shrank dramatically since they no longer guaranteed
access to power and privilege. The parties that remained were often
just as rigid and dogmatic as the more massive parties from which
they originated. In at least one case however, a former CP has gone
through an interesting evolution. That party is the Party for
Democratic Socialism of Germany, which emerged out of the former
East German CP.

As antibureaucratic struggles deepened throughout eastern Europe in
1989, many of the grass-roots components had a liberal and
anticommunist complexion. This was especially true in
Czechoslovakia where Vaslac Havel became president.

In East Germany, however, many of the people in the streets
considered themselves to be socialist and simply wanted a socialist
economy combined with democratic liberties. The PDS (Party of
Democratic Socialism) attracted many of these activists to its ranks
after its forerunner, the East German CP, relinquished power.

These grassroots groups called themselves "initiative groups". They
often usurped local party organizations. The initiative groups included
gays and lesbians, feminists, ecology activists and others. One
initiative group, the "Young Comrades", played an increasingly
important role with non-party youth. They have a vibrant oriented
approach that has captured the imagination of many unaffiliated
progressive youth.

The PDS shares with the Brazilian Workers Party a tendency not to
put forward a fully elaborated program of socialism that is etched in
granite. It believes that such a program can only evolve through on-
going interaction with the mass movement.

This has led some critics to question the leftist credentials of the PDS.
Two prominent PDS activists from the Trotskyist tradition, federal-
directorate member Jakob Moneta and Berlin city deputy Harald Wolf,
argue that the party's actual anti-capitalist politics are much more
important than the shifting programmatic statements. Once again we
find ex-Trotskyists playing a helpful role in a broader, nonsectarian

In a valuable article on the PDS, NY Brecht Forum activist Eric
Canepa sums up the party's self-conception:

"The programme sees a modern socialist party as a necessary
component of a larger group of self-initiated grassroots movements.
'The PDS regards itself as an alliance of differing left forces. Its
commitment to democratic socialism is not tied to any defined
philosophical outlook, ideology or religion.' It welcomes both people
who totally reject capitalist society and those who 'combine their
opposition with the desire to change these relationships positively and
overcome them step by step...The PDS believes that
extraparliamentary struggle is decisive for social changes...Like other
parliamentary activities, local government activities can only be agents
of social change if they are propelled by diverse extra-parliamentary
actions.' The PDS wants to see 'the emergence of broad left
movements...Critically aware of the legacy of Marx and Engels,' the
party also wants to develop a highly pluralistic inner-party culture."

The German PDS is an important new socialist formation which
rejects the sectarianism of the past. Its growth can only enhance the
possibility of other socialist formations triumphing in the former
Soviet bloc. As the realities of global capitalism continue to sink in on
the "newly-liberated" peoples of the region, many will seek
alternatives like the PDS.

I will conclude with an examination of two new non-sectarian groups
in the United States. One, Solidarity, emerges out of a Trotskyist
milieu. The other, Committees of Correspondence, is a reflection of
the same type of forces that have produced the PDS: the crisis of
Stalinism. I am a member of the CofC, but could just as easily belong
to Solidarity. Many members of the groups have dual membership as
well as membership in other broader formations like the Green or New

International Socialist members and others formed Solidarity in 1986.
IS was a left-wing offshoot of Max Shachtman's state-capitalist
Trotskyist splinter formation. When I received my indoctrination in
the SWP, I was taught that the IS was an extremely petty-bourgeois
"talk-shop" filled with people who did not understand the need for
democratic-centralist discipline. Meanwhile in the 1970's and 80's,
these IS activists sank deep roots in the Teamster's union and were
vital to the formation of "Teamsters for Democracy" that helped to
unseat the entrenched Hoffa loyalists.

Solidarity publishes a magazine called Against the Current that, along
with Monthly Review, is essential reading for Marxists in the United
States. One of the editors of Solidarity is Allen Wald, a literary critic
on the faculty of University of Michigan, whom I rank with the great
writers of Partisan Review in the 1930's. Against the Current just
finished publishing a series of articles by Wald on "The End of
American Trotskyism?" He comes to a number of conclusions that are
identical to my own. I made the decision to write my articles after
JjPlant of our Marxism list posted a critique of Wald's articles by an
English Trotskyist intellectual.

"For a Socialist Alternative in America" is the title of Solidarity's
founding statement.. There is a key section called "Overcoming Some
Errors" that deals with issues of sectarianism and dogmatism in the
US context. It states:

"The belief that our particular group constituted in some sense the
'vanguard party,' or its core, in a situation where in reality the group
had only limited influence at the base and even less actual leadership
position among any group of workers, created distortions of various
kinds in our politics. Such a situation inevitably generated certain
tendencies, which were often justified in terms of 'Leninist' or
'democratic centralist' norms but which more often were a serious
misapplication and incorrect reading of the actual practice of the
Bolshevik party in Lenin's lifetime."

These tendencies appeared in the Trotskyist and Maoist groups with
the deepest virulence. To one extent of another, they gave rise to:

"An over-centralization of leadership at the expense of local initiative,
tactical flexibility and willingness to experiment with varying styles of
work. There was a more or less continual state of mobilization-
sometimes with productive results, but insufficient opportunity to
evaluate experiences, with the result that strategic initiative became
too much the exclusive province of the central leadership."

"A vast inflation in the stakes of every political debate, whether over
strategy for a union campaign or even foreign policy or theoretical
issues, resulting in a tendency for factional lines to form as a rule
rather than as an exception in every disagreement. Such factionalism
was often in inverse proportion to the real weight of the political group
in the mass movement, so that the more bitter the internal debate the
less the outcome mattered in the real world."

Finally, the authors of the document point to a "more subtle error" that
has exacerbated the tendency toward splintering of the revolutionary

"We believe that it is a mistake today to organize revolutionary groups
around precise theories of the Russian Revolution. We want to be clear
about what this means.

Precision, clarity and rigor are the highest of virtues in developing
theory and historical analysis; however, lines of political demarcation
do not flow in a mechanical and linear way from differences of
theoretical interpretation. Such an approach leads to unnecessary
hothouse debates on issues where long-term discussion would be more
in order. It also contributes to the dynamics of factionalism and splits,
which in any case have been too high owing to our history of
misassessing the political realities of our own society."

This is a major breakthrough for people emerging out of a Trotskyist
tradition. They repudiate the central tenet of Trotskyist formations:
that their own group is the true carrier of the flame of the Russian
Revolution, all others are fakers. Trotsky himself endorsed this
sectarian logic and handicapped his movement from the very
beginning. The job of a socialist party in the United States is not to
defend the perspectives of the Left Opposition in the USSR in the
1920's. It instead needs to develop a critique of US capitalism and an
organization that can act on that critique. These two tasks--political
and organizational--are dialectically interrelated as they must be. We
can only develop a program for American socialism as we build a very
broad-based movement. For example, how can we develop an analysis
of the problems of ranchers in Idaho and Montana without having
hundreds if not thousands of members in these states? That is our task
now: to build a broad-based socialist party that will attract working
people in every city and state.

Finally I turn to my own organization, the Committees of
Correspondence. This group emerged out of a split in the CPUSA. The
faction that sided with long-time party boss Gus Hall was
uncomfortable with perestroika and glasnost. The faction opposed to
him embraced these changes. In addition, they thought that the
CPUSA was long overdue for its own version of glasnost.

When Red Army officers launched a coup against Gorbachev, the two
factions took opposing positions on the move and the group split
shortly afterwards.

The co-chairs of Committees of Correspondence are Manning
Marable, the head of the African-American studies department at
Columbia University and Charlene Mitchell, who was the CPUSA
presidential candidate in 1968.

The CofC also includes many ex-Trotskyists and ex-Maoists. Many
members of "Line of March", a group that had origins in Maoism,
were attracted to the CofC as well as many ex-members of the SWP
like myself. We have a long and difficult road in front of us. However,
this time the difficulties will not be of our own making.

(This is the final part of a series on "Marxism-Leninism)


Michael Lowy, "Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present

Emir Sader and Ken Silverstein, "Without Fear of Being Happy"

Socialist Register, 1994

Joe Slovo's "Has Socialism Failed" is available on the ANC world-
wide web page

Solidarity's founding statement is available on the Solidarity world-
wide web page

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