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Correspondence: The debate about sectarianism, the left and the working class

17 September 2007

Dear Editor

Having read John's stimulating response to the ISN/Red Banner debate on political sectarianism on the left I feel strongly that the following must be added.
For the simple fact is that, as John himself has stressed on countless occasions, the debate about political sects and the significance of their sectarianism must be subordinated to the relationship that organization has had with the working class and the masses.
In other words we must recognize the significant facts of the political history of a political culture.
Take the IS/SWP - there was a time when feminists used to call the SWP 'workerist'. Looking at the IS paper of the time and the articles in the Socialist Worker in the early 1970s some would claim that there was good evidence of that feminist claim.
Nothing could have been further from the truth! For at that same time that the feminist claim was doing the rounds externally on the left - the leading shop stewards inside the IS were fighting the leadership for a 'turn to the class' to whereby more shop stewards and ordinary union members would be recruited and the organizations base in the organized working class would grow. 
The IS leadership would have none of this and fought for the importance of student work – at the time heavily concentrated on campaigns around feminism. At the same time the party press attacked the rival International Marxist Group as a 'Student Organization'!
Now we can all have a good laugh at this, as the hapless Jim Higgins, who was expelled from IS, does in his book on the disaster. But he completely failed to see the serious and more interesting side which is illustrated by the following power play...
The revolutionary sect ends its wilderness years as a family organisation and intellectual groupscule by recruiting workers to the ideals of a new working class organization. More workers join and the culture of the party begins to change. The workers then try to influence the political line of the organization.
This produces a very bitter confrontation for control of the organization where the old guard succeeds in expelling the worker dissidents - so workers leave in disgust and the organization returns to the wilderness.
For those who think that is harsh - just remember the revolutionary left have been existence for 50 years and still no mass 'party' has emerged. 
One way to deal with the problem of organization is humour - say you are 'the smallest mass party in the world' often enough and members soon get an over inflated sense of your own effect on the world!
But the non-emergence of real mass organizations of the left (since the 1970s) can also produce a humour that actually is not humour at all. It more often than not is a bitter sneer. 
I can recall one ex-leader of Irish socialist republicans who notoriously turned the aforementioned playful bit of British comedy doggerel in the ‘Life of Brian’ into what she thought was a comic masterpiece of 'analysis' of far left 'sectarianism'.  But when we learn that contribution was given at a meeting to discuss the effect of religious sectarianism on people’s homes and livelihoods  - with some of the victims present in the audience - the effect was utterly shameful. 
Indeed one of the women asked

"that's all very well******" but how am I going to stop the Loyalists attacking my home every night?"
But that bitter sneer has an origin. It is the failure of the British Left to make any significant difference to what happened in Ireland like they had done over Vietnam. 
The truth is that the pattern of self-destructive failure mentioned above has been repeated right across the revolutionary left time and time again. It happened to the Socialist Labour League in the early 1960s over the decision to support the Labour Party rather trying to extend it roots in the working class.  It happened to the IS/SWP in the 1970s and the Militant in the 1990s. (A special case could be made for Militant as the better recruiters and promoters of the working class inside their own organization but that raises issues of quantity and quality working to produce (un)desired outcomes).
But I agree with John that the very opposite problem was also an endemic feature of revolutionary left politics. That is, the exact opposite of the manic persistence of an eternal splitter of  ‘Life of Brian’ fame, in the persistent refusal of the organization to make clear enough distinctions. The sole reason for 'the line' or policy position as John pointed out was that it was designed to keep the various factions - TOGETHER! 
That was the case for most of the organisations and leaderships of the Fourth International, with the IMG in Britain and the MIR in Chile. In both cases the refusal to draw clear distinctions led to disasters for the organisations concerned. But when someone of the Irish left uses a piece of well known ‘Life of Brian’ doggerel as a description of their own movement then that is simply a howl of defeat.
What would SD say was the Irish left’s relationship to the working class and the masses since 1968?



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