Convincing practical alternative to the "sect" form ?

Jurriaan Bendien j.bendien at
Tue Jul 16 14:49:04 MDT 2002

(I have approval from Louis to post this)

Tom O'Lincoln, whom I respect, wrote "It's experiences like this that have
made me stick with the "sect" form of
organisation, despite its obvious drawbacks. Those who would persuade us
otherwise need to suggest a convincing practical alternative." That's a
weighty challenge. There are so many factors to consider. I will try a
brief response.

In my experience, the basic tension on far-left politics was between the
desire for promoting political unity in the face of the opposition, and the
need to stick to, and assert one's political principles. If you conceded
too much to the first-mentioned factor, you ended up with opportunism
(unity at the expense of principle), if you conceded too much to the second
factor, you ended up with sectarianism (principles at the expense of
unity). One famous politician said once something like "I would rather
float to the top of the big heap of people than sink to the bottom with my
principles around my neck", a sort of opportunist reading of the political
alternatives there are in this sense.

The problem was always to negotiate this basic contradiction of unity and
principle somehow (there are of course other contradictions), and the way
to do that seems to be (1) to actually go and discover through
investigation what actually concerns or moves ordinary working people in a
political sense, (2) realise that you cannot deal with all of that
simultaneously, (3) filter the various issues through your own political
understanding in an appropriate way ,(3) pick a relevant issue (or issues)
out that comes up that meets certain criteria, such as your personal
ability to tackle it, political relevance, consistency with your own
beliefs etc. (4) make very sure that it is an issue where you have a pretty
good chance of winning it, however modest the issue may be, and where you
can define clearly what it means to have won it, making sure it is easy for
people to join in (5) then work on it as a team, communicating well, until
you get results, where your constituency can actually see that you've won
it. Since there is nothing that succeeds like success, every little success
you have encourages more success.

This, put in a maybe naively simplistic summary way, is what the Dutch
Socialist Party did (using basically the Maoist conception of the "mass
line" or a variant of that which some detractors call "populism"), and they
have about 30,000 members in 20 years hard work. A purist might well argue
they attained this unity at the expense of "hard" Marxist principles, but
there's no denying that their method works. Once you get people joining
you, a cumulative dynamic sets in, because ordinary folks like to join
something that is growing, successful, visibly effective and above all big.
I am not saying the SP project is without problems, to the contrary. You
can get too focused on party growth, for instance. But they were able to
get real political influence where others failed, that is the only point I
am making here. It can be done (see

Years ago in the 1980s (1987 ?), I ran an election campaign in a
Christchurch city district with my friend Geoff Pearce whom I mentioned in
a previous post, plus a bunch of mainly student and lecturer friends in New
Zealand Socialist Alliance. SA was conceived as a "party-movement", some
way between a cadre party and a campaign coalition. We were all socialists,
and we would work together on issues of common concern.  We saw the
elections as an opportunity to talk socialism with ordinary people, and we
wanted some practice. We were interested in a real dialogue. We had two
basic slogans, "participatory democracy" and the "shorter working week",
and we tried to "sell" this to a district electorate, covering thousands of
households. It was enjoyable, we had media coverage, people found it
worthwhile to do this, but we got few votes, few new members and little
real political effect. We were really just acting as the "conscience of the

In retrospect, the problem seemed to be really that we hadn't followed the
kind of method sketched above. Our two slogans hadn't been distilled out of
a real study of political opinion, they were just two things we hoped would
catch on, and we were trying to see whether they would catch on. But we had
no chance at all of winning those "transitional demands" etc. The activists
were pretty happy with the experience, we'd learnt a lot, but it did not
lead anywhere in particular after that. We had in reality set ourselves up
in a situation where we were bound to lose in a political sense, whatever
the personal benefits for members, or the benefits in terms of promoting
group cohesion. We kind of knew that, we were just very modest in our
expectations, even so, the point was that our very formula had slim chance
of success indeed. And it was difficult to draw definite common conclusions
from the experience we had had afterwards. Geoff said to me, walking
through the streets in the electorate, "hell I think it could take decades
before these people are really going to be politically on the move".

I happen to think that a lot of far-left projects failed simply because
they don't follow one or more of the five or so criteria mentioned above,
and I have given an illustration of how that could happen. That would be my
main point in this mail. You have to pick a fight where you have a real
chance of winning something tangible in the eyes of your constituency. Many
far left projects don't even do that. Either they don't believe they can
win anything in the present situation ("optimism of will, pessimism of
intellect"), or they try to win something they cannot possibly win. Or
perhaps they fight without even especially wanting to win anything specific.

Of course, I haven't got the philosophers stone. I make no claim whatever
to have discovered anything like a "fool-proof" political method or
anything like that; there are no such guarantees in politics, and we always
have to do with PERSONALITIES who have their individual strengths and
weaknesses or ideosyncrasies. Often it is very difficult to pinpoint the
real cause of success or failure. I am merely trying to sketch from a
modest personal experience where I think the PROBLEMS lie, in very simple
terms without theoretical huffing and puffing. I want to have a way of
talking about it without getting involved in petty doctrinal disputes about
who is the "most revolutionary" and so forth. It's a way of looking at it.

As regards personality factors, everyone acknowledged that our candidate,
Geoff Pearce, had personal charisma, and that he had the guts to stand up
for what he believed in. But he wasn't an experienced politician or a very
resolute, self-confident political leader. He had shrewd political insight,
but he wasn't really a dyed-in-the-wool political animal. So whereas many
people liked him, perhaps precisely for that reason (his "humanity" if you
like), his ability to actually move those people in a definite political
direction was actually limited. Through his subsequent trade union
experience, at which he worked extremely hard, he got a lot better, and he
won big financial claims for his members quite a few times. Trivial to the
Trotskyist politico maybe, but not trivial to very grateful workingclass
people, who became his real following.  It wasn't yet a "political
breakthrough", nevertheless he showed me for one that it could be done. I
couldn't do what he did myself, but I do acknowledge that it can be done. I
suppose that sounds kind of lame as an ending ("downhill" as Phil F. might

I just sat in a pub next to a 78-year old Dutchman who had been a boxer,
having a cold beer. He was tough allright.  I realised I just don't have
his kind of fighting spirit at the moment. I have had experiences which
knocked it out of me to the point where all I wanted was some peace of
mind. Marx once said his greatest happiness was "to fight". And that too is
probably an essential ingredient for a successful socialist politics. You
have to be happy to do battle, and that excludes a lot of people for a
start, at least from time to time, for all sorts of peculiar reasons.
Sometimes the biggest battle we have to contend with is the battle within



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