[Marxism] Re A sectarian approach

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Fri Nov 11 09:15:55 MST 2005

Josh writes, "There are a lot of people on this list who come out of the
Trotskyist tradition and now hate Trotskyists.  They don't have a
unitary or coherent critique, you have a bunch of individuals saying
very different things, but I'd say in general they share a formal,
undialectical approach - they take the decrepit state of Trotskyist
groups today, which for the most part simply reflects the decrepit
disarray of the working class movement, and they throw really nasty
attacks at a hard communist political tradition that is trying to hang
on for dear life in a period where just doing that is worthy of praise."

I don't think Josh has understood the reasons why some of us are
expressing concern, and it has nothing to do with hating the Trotskyist
tradition or that today Trotskyist groups are decrepit or whatever. 

Quite the contrary, for my part I think that Trotsky's analysis and
critique of the degeneration of the Soviet bureaucratic process is an
extremely important contribution to Marxism, and that in the main he was
right in his opposition to the Comintern's policies in both the
ultraleft "Third Period" (leading up to Hitler's taking control of
Germany) and in the following "Popular Front" approach (following
Hitler's victory). 

It has to do with the method of creating small groupings whose
boundaries are defined by ideological concerns, and which, experience
shows, wind up being counterposed to the actual class movement and the
maturation of an advanced layer of fighters of that class movement.

I criticize that approach as an *idealist* approach, i.e., one based on
ideas, rather than being a materialist one that tries to base itself on
the movement and evolution of actual social forces, and I believe it
leads not to the creation of parties but of *sects*. And it should be
noted this is not at all a specifically Trotskyist problem but rather a
generally "Leninist" one, by which I mean not something having to do
with Lenin but rather with the post-1917 (and actually mostly post-1924,
when Lenin died) theory of the magical powers of "the Leninist Party," a
wizardly instrument supposedly invented or discovered by Lenin, "a party
of a new type," and all you have to do is build it and the socialist
revolution will come. 

This sect-type formation coupled with the idea of "the Leninist Party"
or "the indispensable programmatic nucleus" thereof, leads directly to
cultism, the cult of the organization in the first instance, then the
cult of leaders all the way to phenomena so bizarre that their study
belongs more properly in the field of social pathology than that of

Coupled with this is that Lenin came up with this scheme of organization
because he discovered that the communists are the most advanced,
forward-looking layer of the working class, the "vanguard of the
proletariat," something supposedly hitherto unknown.

Lenin made no such claims about the Bolshevik Party nor is that how he
played the role he did in the building of that party, by starting with
an a-priori concept of what the party should be like and a dogma about
all sorts of "principles" then molding reality to fit into that shape.
Quite the contrary, his orientation was to strengthening the Russian
Social Democratic Labor Party as an "all inclusive" party. It was only
when the evolution of various currents made plain that the Mensheviks
would build, not a real workers party, but a workers' auxiliary to the
bourgeois parties, a bourgeois "workers" party, as he later called them,
that he would have disclaimed "all inclusiveness" and even then, the
exclusion was of the strictly bourgeois Menshevik current, his idea was
never that the party should be homogeneous around a whole body of

As for it being the "vanguard" party, you'll find references to the
(pre-1914) Social Democracy being the vanguard of the working class in
writings by all sorts of socialists of those days, including Kautsky,
Luxembourg and many others. It would not have occurred to Lenin claiming
to have "discovered" this role because it was already very clearly
explained in the Communist Manifesto.

"The Communists ... are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced
and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that
section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand,
theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the
advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions,
and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."

Yet in the Manifesto, the founders of our movement warn specifically
against what today we would call "vanguardism," the course that these
comrades in Venezuela appear to be on: 

"In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a

"The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other
working-class parties. 

"They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat
as a whole. 

"They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to
shape and mould the proletarian movement."

As I've written on this list many times in the past, how Marx and Engels
understood this is shown by their actual practice, and specifically by
the dissolution of the Communist League in early 1848, only a few weeks
after those lines were penned. With the emergence of a revolution and
the masses taking the stage of history as its protagonists, they
dissolved their pre-existing, full-program, propaganda organization in
order to better integrate themselves into the actual *democratic*
movement that had emerged and help promote the cohering of its most
consistent, proletarian in all but name, left wing. 

Those are examples that are very applicable to the Venezuelan case, as I
explained in the post I sent a couple of days ago, because Marx and
Engels activities were guided by the concept of "permanent revolution,"
the evolution of the revolutionary process from one that started around
a limited number of democratizing aims to a revolution that would bring
the working class to power and challenge the foundations of capitalism
itself, a socialist revolution.

Josh complains that Louis and I and others who agree with us don't
criticize the SEIU or AFSCME bureaucracy, the NGO's and non-profits,
etc., in the same way that we do those who identify as Trotskyists and
so on. There is a very simple explanation, and it's got nothing to do
with red-baiting or anti-communism. It is, quite simply, that there's no
pretense on the part of the labor or non-profiteer bureaucracy that
theirs is the road to the abolition of capitalism, to the end once and
for all of exploitation, imperialism, etc. On the contrary those folks
all *accept* society as it is and seek at most palliative reforms. And
of course I'm not talking here about one or another revolutionary minded
union or non profit officeholder, but about these layers viewed as a
whole. Our debate is not with them, it is in the camp of
*revolutionaries,* those who would abolish this system, those who are
like us. 

The debate is about what is the role and proper activity of
revolutionaries, about what is to be done to advance the revolutionary

This problem, treating Marxism as a rigid doctrine has plagued the
communist movement for more than 100 years. You can read Engels's
complaints in his letters to Sorge about the course followed by those
who viewed themselves as Marx and Engels's followers in the United
States and how they had transformed Marxism into an "all saving dogma"
--I think that was the phrase-- you will see that this predates the
Comintern by quite a bit, so it isn't like it was a phenomenon Marx and
Engels were unaware of. And I suspect that tendency was there from the
outset, which is why Engels is so careful in a polemic he wrote in 1847,
at the very time he and Marx were also drafting the Manifesto, to say:

"Herr Heinzen imagines communism is a certain doctrine which proceeds
from a definite theoretical principle as its core and draws further
conclusions from that. Herr Heinzen is very much mistaken. Communism is
not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from
facts. The Communists do not base themselves on this or that philosophy
as their point of departure but on the whole course of previous history
and specifically its actual results in the civilised countries at the
present time. Communism has followed from large-scale industry and its
consequences, from the establishment of the world market, of the
concomitant uninhibited competition, ever more violent and more
universal trade crises, which have already become fully fledged crises
of the world market, from the creation of the proletariat and the
concentration of capital, from the ensuing class struggle between
proletariat and bourgeoisie. Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is
the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this
struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for the
liberation of the proletariat."

This characteristic of communist ideas, that they are the theoretical
expression of an actual class movement, is what people who set up these
dogmatic and idealist groups --especially in the midst of great
revolutions-- don't appreciate. In a situation like that prevailing in
the United States, where the class movement is so atomized it scarcely
merits the name movement, the existence of socialist sects is to a
certain extent justifiable and even inevitable, and these propaganda
groupings can play a positive role in keeping alive socialist ideas,
proposing and modeling an alternative course in the unions, the social
movements and overall political life generally. This is best done if the
group has no pretensions about being "the" party, "the" keeper of the
sacred flame, "the" preserver of the revealed truth, but, frankly, even
groups which are quite hopelessly sectarian can play, in part, this good

But the task of communists in Venezuela is not to win a few individuals
over to the cause on the basis of intellectual arguments, but rather to
aid in the maturation of the powerful revolutionary movement that has
already emerged, and one of whose distinctive weaknesses is its failure
thus far to cohere into a more structured organized form. Clearly this
is one of the reasons why President Chavez and the team around him, who
are indisputably the central leadership of this overall movement, have
launched this discussion about creating a forward-looking socialist
vision for the XXIst Century, to try to overcome the existing
fragmentation and dispersal of revolutionary forces in multiple
organizations based on divisions inherited from the past. The existence
of a multiplicity of groups isn't a good thing: they vie with each other
for influence, posts, etc., and tend to do things to build their own
specific organization that turn out to be not necessarily in the
interests of the movement as a whole, because they unnecessarily
complicate or delay certain processes.

>From this point of view, is the launching of a youth organization by the
Trotskyists, or one of the Trotskyist currents, really the best way to
proceed? Is this their understanding of re-inventing socialism for the
XXI Century, placing at the heart of their organizations an ideological
commitment to a whole series of positions about things that happened in
the distant past? Wouldn't it be much better to have discussions of
those lessons, insofar as they are relevant, in the framework of an
overall united movement of revolutionary youth, and with the focus being
on what to do next, and what strategic course to follow, rather than on
whether the POUM in Spain in 1934 was centrist or not, what people in
Germany should have been doing in 1932 and so on?

Everyone wants to focus on the good old days, where the actions and
writings of your favorite saints and sinners make clear the road to
follow. But --especially in Venezuela-- these ARE the good old days, the
future is vast an uncharted, a wilderness without any road whatever. The
road needs to be made by walking, and the road that needs to be made is
NOT the Trotskyist or Maoist or Leninist road, but the road of the
Bolivarian Revolution and the socialism of the XXI Century, and it can
only be made by social forces, the concerted action of Venezuela's
working people, not groups that isolate themselves from the main body of
marchers and especially the lead contingent by organizing a sect around
an ideological dogma.


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