An End to Sectarianism

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


Louis:

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 
happening.

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 
provide."

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 
framework.

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 
Parties.

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 
left.

"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)

Sources:

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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