Overcoming Sectarianism in the Construction of a Combative Mass Movement


By Jan Makandal

The Crisis of Capitalism: A Particular Conjuncture

Capitalism is going through a period of deep crisis in the reproduction of capital. Two types of contradictions are actually affecting capital, compelling it to desperately seek a remedy for this crisis, which is a result of how capital is currently producing surplus value, and how capital is being circulated.

Intra-Class Contradiction: Structural Adjustment

The first type of contradiction is within the dominant classes, specifically within the capitalist class. This type of intra-ruling class contradiction is universal to all social formations, but the particulars are specific to each social formation, because of the historical structure of class struggle. In the US social formation, with which we are mainly focused at present, the internal contradiction of capital is advancing in a very complex reality.

Schematically, one of the complex aspects is the interplay of opposing tendencies of different fractions of capital to both fuse and to resist fusion (banking capital, “investment capital” [all forms of capitalist speculative activity], and industrial capital). This contradictory relationship occurs within the whole material base of all relations of production as well as the circulation of goods (which includes money).

The resistance to fusion and the dominant role of “investment capital” is creating a downward spiral in which capital is reluctantly discovering that there is no solution. The compounded interests inherent to “investment capital” promote the generation of “fictitious” values, bubbles and crises. This particular tendency in the crisis of capital is not simply an effect of capital, but is rapidly turning out to be a structural crisis. Capital and capitalism are forced to enter structural adjustment in the US social formation in order to buy time, to generate a relative passivity among the masses while tumbling full speed into catastrophe. One way or the other, capital will have to face its internal problem.

One of the difficulties capital is dealing with is their inter-class struggle over how to enter a process of resolution to escape this mess. The different forms of concentration of capital are so intertwined, that even though they are all talking about bringing back manufacturing (productive capital), none can offer a real autonomous alternative to the hegemonic form of extraction of non-productive surplus value. They have no solutions, and are running out of even short-term fixes.

Structural adjustment (changing the basic framework of an economy to resolve its internal contradictions, which today widely includes measures such as austerity, trade liberalization, privatization, and deregulation) not only assaults the masses, especially the working class, but also brings into question the very forms of concentration of capital.

The “fiscal cliff” being discussed recently is an effect of the structural adjustment of capital. This is not the first time capital is faced with the need to structurally adjust itself. The US was formed when the capitalist class achieved a certain level of consciousness, and understood that it could run the land under its control without sharing its surplus value with its counterparts in England. US capitalists went to war to seize political power, and adjusted capital structurally for the sole interest of their class. This adjustment was mainly aimed at making capital more private and kicking England to the curb.

The second time was an adjustment in the process of the production and extraction of surplus value. Turning labor power into a commodity was more beneficial to capital, and a civil war was waged to resolve that contradiction.

The same issue is currently in the process of unraveling, and this time it is more complex. Capital and capitalism, now at the stage of imperialism, must adjust themselves again. Banking capital (money-lending) has fused with industrial capital (capitalist production of real goods) to form finance capital. “Investment capital” (multinational finance conglomerates dealing in speculative trade in shares of companies, bonds, commodities futures, currency speculation, government issued securities, mortgage backed securities, insurance, etc., through various trade instruments such as derivatives and credit default swaps) has emerged as a dominant non-productive, toxic form of surplus value extraction that has become hegemonic and globalized. A crisis in any part of the world has repercussions all over the world.

This has created a level of contradiction so intense that the existing bourgeois democratic structure is being overwhelmed. This is not a debate about taxes and who should be paying more. This is a structural adjustment affecting the capitalist class as a whole—the hegemonic fractions in particular. Another fiscal cliff is being approached, where for capital to adjust itself, it has to reform itself internally. This is creating very particular sets of problems with all kinds of contradictions and historical tendencies.

Inter-Class Contradiction: Popular Resistance

The second type of contradiction currently facing capital is popular resistance. The contradiction of the people’s camp against the capitalist class is defining and impacting how capitalism will address and attempt to solve its ongoing structural crisis.

Unfortunately, in this conjuncture, the people’s camp (all the classes that are dominated and exploited by capitalism) is generally disorganized. Political consciousness is at a very low level. Most organizations within the masses are either bourgeois organizations (churches, organized labor unions) or petit bourgeois organizations (NGOs, issue-oriented organizations) that are objectively defending the interests of various sectors of capitalism and ensuring the reproduction of capitalism.

The composition of the dominated classes is a mirror image of capital. Capital is increasingly invested in toxic (fictitious) methods of self-reproduction, while the production of productive surplus value is in relative decline. This means that increasing numbers of working people are employed in the circulation of capital rather than producing surplus value, making conditions even more favorable for petit bourgeois ideology (corresponding to the interests of non-productive working people for equality in the marketplace) to overwhelm working class ideology.

The current situation reduces the capacity of the popular masses to offer their own autonomous alternatives to the ongoing crisis. Within that overall unfavorable context, the current capacity for the working class to offer its specific alternative is relatively even weaker. (This provokes petit bourgeois progressives to declare working class ideology “exhausted,” and to deny the fact that it is the only viable alternative for the ultimate defeat of capitalism.)

The reality is now clear that in this conjuncture, for the time being, as long as the subjective conditions of the masses are not radically transformed, any alternative that will be offered to the crisis will come from the capitalists themselves, leaning on the petit bourgeoisie, or from the fractions of that class that are the most organized. We must face this fact.

The Need for Autonomous Alternatives

These conditions are not permanent. They can be transformed.

It is not only in the US social formation that the alternatives being offered as solutions to the crisis of capitalism are, in the final analysis, allowing capitalism to re-structure (in most cases for neo-liberalism). This is occurring across the globe. It is due to the lack of popular autonomy, primarily working class autonomy. The only solution to this is to construct autonomous working class organizations.

As long as domination and exploitation exist, there will be resistance. The form and content of resistance will be defined and determined by consciousness. We must take care that mass struggle and resistance do not languish at a level of political consciousness that allows their recuperation by bourgeois alternatives in the interest of capitalism.

Preventing this recuperation is the role of both intermediate level and revolutionary level organizations. Both levels must be present in the struggle to debunk bourgeois alternatives, while simultaneously constructing autonomous alternatives that will enable the popular masses to reject bourgeois alternatives. The masses must be organically won over to face the onslaught of capitalism and its organizations.

Many internal contradictions within the masses are impeding their process of organizing and unifying for their struggle and resistance against domination and exploitation. One of these barriers is sectarianism.

Ideology Determines Perception and Interaction with Reality

Ideology is a structure of ideas, representations, conceptions, theories, philosophies, creeds and faiths, articulated by practices of conduct, comportment, behaviors, ambitions, aspirations, customs, habits, consciousness, and emotions. Ideology is how people conceive of reality, plus how they self-identify and relate to this reality. Ideology serves as the glue of a social formation, by determining people’s behavior in their various social roles. There is a dialectical relationship between how people perceive reality and how they live (act or practice) within it. On the whole, practice plays a determinant role in its relation to ideas. In turn, these ideas can act back upon and transform practices.

The Source of Sectarianism
Sectarianism is an ideological practice, a comportment, in the ideological realm. It is rooted in the social division of labor into classes, which originated with the emergence of a gender-based division of labor in hunter/forager social formations, which itself corresponded to and resulted from the development of various relations of gender-based domination and subordination.

A second type of social division of labor emerged with the relative specialization of particular kinds of production: agriculture, hunting, fishing, animal domestication and herding, ironsmiths, etc. Historically, this relative specialization reproduced itself through socially learned skills passed on from generation to generation, often based on local geographic conditions that favored certain kinds of production. Specialization also led to the emergence of traditions of gifting and exchange within and between social formations. Eventually, trade emerged as a systematic means to rationalize and enable the social division of labor, both within and between societies.

The systematization of trade led to the development of commodity production, the production of merchandise, or goods to be traded, in tandem with the production of goods to be directly consumed by their producers. Eventually, production primarily for the purpose of trade began to be practiced.

The Manifestation of Sectarianism

All social practices at the level of production are validated and justified in the ideological realm. Because of class struggle, no ideology to validate class reproduction can exist in a pure form, within the social reality.

Sectarianism is the filtration of an historical tendency of class domination to the level of the dominated classes, for the reproduction of class domination. In other words, it is an ideology serving the dominant classes that infects and takes shape in the people’s camp. It limits our capacity to build unity for the construction of mass and revolutionary organizations and/or party.

Sectarianism is the error of viewing a secondary contradiction within the people’s camp as a fundamental contradiction. It is the error of mistaking an objective ally for a competitor or even an enemy. It prevents the principled unity that must be achieved if we are to defeat capitalism.

The fundamental basis of sectarianism is the historical development of private ownership. All the historical tendencies produced at the level of the superstructure (the political and ideological systems)—especially in the ideological field— reproduce the social reality of private ownership. This is not always necessarily for directly economic reasons, but will still have economic effects (such as competition). Sectarianism has its roots in individualism, in the promotion of personification, self-identity and self-centeredness that capitalism relies on to divide the working class and stifle its collective strength.

This process of filtration tends to construct forms of contradictory unity:

In band societies, tribalism served to cement communities but also, at times, to unite them in struggle against other tribes.

During the period of slavery, some slaves on plantations accepted the masters’ property as legitimately owned. Because they were treated as commodities, at times slaves identified themselves as the property of the owners, while simultaneously resisting slavery.

During the period of feudalism, the serf will identify with “their” landlords, while resisting the relationship as well. This identification has evolved into what functions nowadays as nationalism.

During the period of capitalism, a corresponding identification occurs, where workers and working people at times defend the property of the capitalists as their own. “My workstation, my computer, my house”—even when the house is mortgaged and could be lost anytime to its formal owner. At the same time, workers and working people resist exploitation and domination.

Sectarianism is an Ideological Problem

Sectarianism is the ideological influence of class domination on the masses. The development of that influence creates its own ideological tendency among the masses, especially the petite bourgeoisie.

The petit bourgeoisie is more inclined toward individualism because it corresponds to their economic aspirations of personal advancement, whereas workers engage in collective labor and have more concerns that are objectively in common with other members of their class. (Even so, workers are also set up by the capitalists to compete on a personal level, including for jobs, and thus also are susceptible to individualism).

Since at the level of the masses, control is real and not formal, there is no genuine private ownership by the masses. The masses may temporarily possess property, while actual ownership is retained by the capitalist class.

Sectarianism is rooted in the possession of property that is not really our own. This false sense of control serves the objective of the ruling class to reinforce and consolidate the historical ideological and political tendencies of capitalism, namely: private ownership and its ideological manifestation as individualism.

Concrete Manifestations of Sectarianism:

  • The spirit of unity is replaced by the spirit of competition.
  • Ideas become private property: individualism, intellectualism and personality cult.
  • Ideas are permanent and fixed. This is a breeding ground for dogmatism. (This is a very dangerous error. Ideas and theories are interpretations of an objective reality that is constantly evolving; thus the ideas must remain in a constant mode of rectification and consolidation).
  • A tendency to personify ideas/theories through: labeling. The fundamental internal dynamic of any objective social reality is class struggle. The ideas and theories that interpret this reality do not exist for the interests of individuals, but rather in the interests of social classes. Any interpretation made by individuals or groups are for the objective benefit and in the interests of social classes.
  • Defining our positions as correct, outside and absent of their validation through practice, leading to: bureaucratism and vanguardism.

Combatting Sectarianism

We are not competing with capitalism. On the contrary, we need to offer an alternative to it. Sectarianism is a hurdle in our demarche to construct political rapprochement for the political unity inside the people’s camp. In order to construct a genuine autonomous anti-imperialist mass movement at the level of the fundamental masses and the masses in general, as well as an autonomous working class movement at all levels, it is imperative that in the process of construction we demarcate ourselves from sectarianism. Simultaneously, we must construct an alternative: that all of our production in the fields of theory and ideology becomes the collective property of the masses.

There is no formula, no prescription to cure us of sectarianism. Our only solution is class struggle: to rupture with ideology that benefits class domination (for the reproduction of class domination), and to construct ideology that serves the reproduction of collectivity.

Some General Guidelines:

  • Theory as an interpretation and as a guide for practice must not be partisan. Our acceptance or rejection of ideas should be rational, not based on emotion, prejudice, pre-held conceptions or dogma.
  • Theory must not be viewed as fixed or permanent, but constant (in a constant mode of rectification and consolidation).
  • We must aim for theory to become collective property.
  • Theory must be submitted to the test of practice in order to be recognized as valid.
  • Even when a theory has been collectively identified as having reached a certain level of fusion with objective reality, that theory is still not permanent but in a constant mode of rectification and consolidation (corresponding to the changing nature of objective reality).
  • We must be humble. There is one road to liberation, with many alternative paths being offered that lead nowhere (the dominant one being reformism). We should have an open mind, always question ourselves and others, and be prepared to rectify and consolidate when practice validates theory. We should do this in the spirit of reinforcing our unity. The correct theory becomes the collective guideline.
  • Struggle against a backyard mentality, an urge to secure for oneself personally a specific political/ideological/theoretical domain (“my” ideas). This error is a backbone of sectarianism.
  • All of our actions should serve the construction of combative mass movement.
  • Apply criticism and self-criticism under the principle “demarcate to unite.”
  • Theory is a level of class struggle for the reproductions of classes and/or the relations of classes.

At this conjuncture, our political practices have to be detectable by the laws of contradiction. By recognizing where we are, we can define how to advance.

(Refer to the document on Intermediate Level Organization).

Tendencies of (or related to) Sectarianism

In any social formation where the whole relations of classes are historically being constituted (more precisely, the whole relations between classes, which constitute the historical structure of class struggle in which classes are producing, in their struggle for their own reproduction, fusion or transformation at the level of the superstructure), ideological historical tendencies are also being produced by class struggle.

Societal alternatives cannot be produced by individuals or small groups. Societal alternatives, in the final analysis, are always historically class alternatives, even if individuals or small groups are their initiators.

Alternatives are always class alternatives, based on a class alliance under the leadership of a particular class. The dysfunction of sectarians is based on the contradictory unity of their territorialism along with the fact that alternatives are class-based. As much as they attempt to function solely within their own self-imposed territorial boundaries, reality consistently forces them outside these. If they remain isolated, it means their annihilation. So they must compromise and co-exist, if they are to function at all inside a class-divided social formation.

Some problems that manifest this contradiction include:

  • Creating groups that quickly revert to front groups.
  • Entering unprincipled alliances in order to gather more people.
  • Engaging in bourgeois politics (gossiping, backstabbing, populism) as a way of exerting control.
  • Building and forming cliques inside any organizations.
  • Being unable to participate in mass organizations.
  • Having a very strong spirit of competition, and no desire to build unity.

In general, no struggle will develop from pre-established diagrams, nor from the application of a program. In fact, in most cases the process of the struggle will itself open new doors, new avenues. The struggle of the progressive militants, a struggle allowing history to advance in the interest of the popular masses—along with the struggle of the revolutionary militants to radically transform our objective reality—will not consist of examining theory to find a plan for upcoming historical events. It will consist of relying on theory, in the historical tendencies of actual conditions, as the means to understand these events as soon as we are facing them, so we can participate actively instead of passively undergoing them.

The struggles between tendencies are important for the health of the progressive movements as well as revolutionary organizations. This struggle must be waged for the sole purpose of constructing and preserving unity, rather than to compete. Struggle needs to be waged against any fractional tendencies, and for the essential principle of freedom of discussion and freedom of constructive criticism. Sectarians are by nature bureaucratic, and tend to violate all principles that can achieve unity either for the construction of a mass movement or the unity of revolutionaries.

The point here is not to question the intent of groups organized around any particular tendency. The intent is noble, but if we were to rely solely on intent, we would have defeated capitalism a long time ago. No one should uphold this ultimate position “after us there is nothing.” Instead we should engage in struggle for the unity of our movement toward a common goal,  be ready to be convinced or to convince, in a process involving a dialectical relation of theory and practice, determined by practice.


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