Overcoming sectarianism

Pat Byrne was the last of three comrades to address the CPGB's Communist University in a session entitled 'They fuck you up, the left'. This is an edited version of his speech

I first got active in the Schools Action Union in 1969. I nearly joined the Young Communist League, but ended up joining the Labour Party Young Socialists and through that the Militant in 1972. In the Militant I was active mainly in the trade union field, but also in the Labour Party up until 1985.

Unfortunately most people outside the Militant/Socialist Party tradition do not really know that much about it. When Mike Macnair did a series about the Militant’s entryist tactic in the Weekly Worker, there were a lot of things in it that were not entirely accurate. I do not blame him - unless you were active in the Labour Party you did not really know what the Militant were up to: what was wrong with it and what was good about it.

I left the Militant in 1985 when I came to the conclusion - arising out of the miners’ strike, youth work and international work - that Militant was actually run by a clique. Although it was active in the Labour Party and unions, it was highly sectarian. It was not involving its members - ultimately the leaders were control-freaks. Five years after I left, a big split developed between Peter Taaffe and Lynn Walsh on the one side and Alan Woods and Ted Grant on the other.

I tried to rejoin, but they would not let me. So I joined the Grant/Woods group, which published a paper called Socialist Appeal. We tried to warn them that if they did not learn from the Militant experience they were not going to go anywhere. Of course, after a couple of years it became obvious that they were just trying to reproduce the Militant from the 1960s, when it was a small group.

That is generally the experience of too many of the splits on the left and in the socialist movement. They end up reproducing the things that they were fighting against. They do that because they rush - in rivalry with their old organisation - into producing a newspaper, which involves huge amounts of human and other resources and the building up of an organisation. They do not take time out to sit down and say: What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How can we avoid those mistakes?

About two years ago the International Marxist Tendency, the group led by Alan Woods (Ted Grant had died by that time), itself suffered a split. The interesting thing was that much of it was about organisational questions - about democracy inside the group. Basically the organisation was run on the principle that you must be ‘united’: you have the debate internally, but you must not explain your differences to anyone else.

This was taken to the ridiculous extreme whereby the international secretariat would have their debates and there would be differences, but they would form a united front against the international executive committee. The IEC would form a united front against the central committees of each country, which would in turn form a united front against their membership, who would then form a united front against the working class! Then suddenly, out of the blue sky apparently, the leadership splits. Their differences up to that point had been concealed and the membership had not been involved. That is one of the classic symptoms of the way in which sectarians behave.

I like the title you gave to this session: ‘They fuck you up, the left - expulsions, excommunications and the culture of sectarianism’. It links sectarianism and the lack of democracy, which go hand in hand. But I do not go along with the conclusion of the poem on which the title is based: ie, you just have to get out. We did a quick calculation recently: there are something like half a million ex-Leninist Trotskyists in Britain who ‘got out’. That is a tragic situation.

Imagine if we could have constructed healthy organisations on a completely different basis. Instead of saying to recruits, ‘Look, the revolution is going to happen in the next five, 10 or 15 years, so you must become super-active and give up all your time and resources’, we had taken a different view. We should actually have been saying, ‘We don’t know when the revolution is going to come, but, if you believe in these principles, build them into your life. Pace yourself, so you can still serve the movement into your old age.’

If we had done that we might have been able to hold onto some of these people, instead of becoming a revolving door. Too many organisations fasten on to some of the negative features of young people: impatience, overwillingness to sacrifice and to follow people blindly. They play on those and they build their whole organisations around them. They do not care if people drop out: they have got a formula and they can recruit replacements. Some of the flower of our youth are sucked into such organisations, churned up and then spat out again. It is such a tragedy.

It is not just the left that is aware of this behaviour: it is well known among wide layers of society. To be honest, we are completely marginalised in Britain, and among many thinking people we are a laughing stock. We keep splitting, because we are not able to resolve our differences. Leaderships regard anyone who comes up with criticisms as an enemy to be driven out of their organisation - they are incapable of dealing with that. As a result we are not able to build a movement.

When the typical lefty gets up at a community meeting pulled together for some campaign, they will launch into some crude denunciation, using leftwing jargon or empty slogans. People just groan when they hear this: the language is just so alien to them. Or you see all those Socialist Workers Party placards on demonstrations - they often display good slogans, but instead of being produced for the movement, they have ‘SWP’ at the top. Then they are surprised when people rip that part of the placard off.


What is sectarianism? The classic definition is that of socialists putting our own interests before those of working people as a whole. When the typical socialist group is preparing how to intervene in a struggle, it tends to focus less on how it can advance that struggle than on, for example, how to get a speaker on the platform to gain prestige; how to get membership contacts, sell papers, expose its rivals. Ironically they do not realise that, by being the best fighters espousing the cause, they would win much more support. But unfortunately they seem to approach such campaigns by thinking: How can I expose that group? How can I show that this Labour or trade union leader or that left group is useless?

This is actually a capitalist mentality. Instead of trying to think in terms of socialist cooperation, which should be our principle, it is all about rivalry. Join us, not that rubbish group. Buy our paper - it is the best in the world. Of course, that puts people off, it does not achieve things. And in fact the same mentality is visible in the attitude towards working people as a whole: they are seen as a market, a source of money, paper sales and members: it is not about building the interest of the working class.

Why does sectarianism arise? Conditions determine consciousness - that is a famous phrase, which I think is true, and it is related to sectarianism. If socialists fail to spend the majority of their time working in broad organisations of working people, then I think they will inevitably come to be sectarian. There are several benefits from working in broad organisations (by that I mean trade unions, tenants’ organisations, pressure campaigns - in other words, organisations where people have all sorts of views, but have come together to fight for particular causes).

First of all, working with people who do not agree with you is a very healthy thing. When you are in a situation where you spend most of your time with others who share your views, it becomes incredibly insular. That reflects itself in your language, in your lack of understanding of what working class people are thinking, what issues they are interested in, etc. I joined Militant when they had about 300 members scattered all over the country, who had to work on their own in all sorts of organisations. But when it grew to 5,000-8,000 members, then a lot of them worked only with each other and never met anyone outside. As a result they really lost touch with what other people were thinking and, of course, they became highly sectarian towards everyone else.

You also learn how to put forward socialist ideas in broad organisations. That is not easy; you have to learn that as a skill. Timing is important: I have seen too many people on the left come to trade union branch meetings and start ranting on about imperialism, when the workers actually wanted to talk about hours or job cuts. But if you are patient, my experience is that over time you get to raise all the political issues - but they have to be relevant. Also, there is the question of using ordinary language - jargon puts people off.

I have been very active in community organisations, such as the tenants sector - fields where often you will never meet a leftwing activist or socialist. Yet they contain tens of thousands of good people, who are looking for answers. The left are on demonstrations about this, that and the other, but not at the grassroots, where they need to be.

Another thing concerns the priorities of working people. I was in the Scottish Socialist Party when the Socialist Workers Party was part of the organisation. When we used to go out canvassing we would discuss beforehand what issues we should raise. But SWP members were determined to go on the housing schemes and talk about issues like the Iraq war. But after about 10 households they would change their tune: they had to get down to the grassroots, bread-and-butter issues that people wanted to talk about.

And how to talk to people is very important. Many leftwingers do not seem to understand that people have got all sorts of views. They are not all consistent: some are progressive, some reactionary. So when they engage with someone reactionary, they say, ‘You racist!’ They do not understand where such views come from, how to relate to them and how to argue these issues. You can only get that from hard experience.

However, there is a peculiar situation in almost all the groups - they have leaderships who spend most of their time writing articles, reading books, lecturing to their own members, etc, and not doing any work in the mass movement. I believe that we have to turn that completely on its head: the activists - the people doing the mass work - should be in the leaderships and running the organisations.

We thought we would be different; we would not suffer from all the usual problems. But we did, because they arise from the group’s natural dynamics. The bigger an organisation becomes, the more full-timers it has and the more they take control. I would argue that we should not have full-timers as leaders, because those people are not involved in the struggle and do not know what the workers are thinking. They end up completely misunderstanding strategy, tactics and politics.

Freedom is knowledge

I would like to finish with a quote from Engels. Now I am not a big one for quoting Marxist authorities, because often that is used to impress or intimidate people. But this one is a good one, and we are here at Communist University.

Engels is famous for saying (although he was actually repeating a quotation from Hegel): “Freedom is a recognition of necessity.” What he is getting at is this: we can only start to have some control over the direction of events when we are aware of the forces that are driving us. In Anti-Dühring Engels says Hegel was the first to express correctly the relation between freedom and necessity: “Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood.” He then goes on to state:

“Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves - two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought, but not in reality. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject … Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature …” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch09.htm).

Now the tragedy is that the left has been completely blind to the whole question of social psychology. They just stumble into all the negative pitfalls: egotism, jealousy and the desire to command people to follow and conform. We do not make any effort in our structures, in our education, in our vigilance to counteract these tendencies. We are not even aware of them; we just fall into them again and again. I think if we could study these things, we may not be able to get rid of them altogether, but maybe we could >minimise them.