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Irish socialists debate sectarianism – or maybe not

John McAnulty

5 September 2007

Recently there has been a whole spread of articles on the issue of political sectarianism on the left.  Calling it a debate would be overstating the case.  For a debate to occur the various writers would have to respond to each others points and this hasn’t been the case, but there are at least a number of different perspectives on offer.

The thread began with an article by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh in the Red Banner magazine defining sectarianism as a distinct current on the left, built into the makeup of some groups. A friendly comment article by Joe Craig was not carried in Red Banner because it had being previously been published on the SD website.  A sharper reply by myself, critiquing the whole idea of sectarianism as a current rather than a method that organisations fall into for specific political reasons, was carried in Red Banner without response.  Des Derwin, Aindrias’ partner on the editorial board, then responded to the Aindrias article.  He mainly agreed with Aindrias, but shortly after the Red Banner collective split.

Now the topic has been taken up by the Irish Socialist Network (  Unfortunately the ISN has imported a rather frustrating habit from Red Banner of never referring to the objects of criticism by name and also have their own tradition of not signing articles, so one has to wade through an article by Nemo criticising no-one in particular.  It is however worth making the effort, because now the target is the whole idea that there can be a Marxist position on specific issues at all.

The author argues that: 

  • The ‘Life of Brian’ sketch lampooning the left reflects reality.
  • Left groups base their activity on attempts to get their political line adopted by everyone else.  The closer their agreement with other groups, the more savage the attacks.
  • Left views of Marxism as a science are at the root of this approach.  Science is based on immutable laws while history is based on people’s actions.  The author’s view of Marxism is that people make history, though circumstances may be against them.
  • Particularly sectarian is the idea that Marxism progresses from Marx to Lenin and then to Trotsky.  Marxism is lots of different strands, of equal validity.
  • There are lots of different strategies of equal value.  Radicals can come to a rational discussion through debate if they are polite and assume the good faith of the other.

In my view the article is wrong on a whole series of issues.  The ‘Peoples Front for the liberation of Judea’ sketch in the ‘Life of Brian’ was the most extreme form of caricature – that’s what made it funny. If I remember the movie went on to the ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ sketch – also very funny – but the object of that sketch was the progressive nature of imperialism and I doubt that there will be an ISN article claiming that that is a description of reality!  The sketch was not descriptive of the left then and it is not descriptive of the left now.

The author illustrates their case by reference to indymedia threads. But the evidence there is that, although the Irish left is very factional, it is almost never on issues of political line. For example, one of the longest threads ever was on the Scottish Socialist Party split – almost 400 comments if I remember rightly. I didn’t read them all, but I was struck by the tiny number that talked about the politics of the SSP rather than statements for or against Tommy Sheridan.  I found this particularly striking when we bear in mind that fact that many on the left had adopted (in many cases still hold to) the SSP model of a ‘party of platforms’. A more recent example was the 80 or so posts that followed the launch of the new ISN paper.  Although most comments were positive, few of the contributors appeared to have read any of the articles and the main discussion was stylistic rather than political.

I would argue that the use of political line among Irish socialists is almost always internal. The Socialist Workers Party can hardly be brought to mention the existence of their own organisation, let alone their support for a revolutionary socialist policy.  The ‘line’ is spelt out and harshly enforced behind closed doors. When the Socialist Party issues 30,000 word statements they are aimed at steadying their own members in the face of criticisms from former members.  In elections they put forward fairly anodyne platforms.

The ISN writer displays a fair degree of arrogance.  Some political differences are important while others are trivial hair-splitting. There are many ways to be a Marxist but limits have to be drawn. We should be polite and assume good faith on the part of other socialists unless, of course, they are dishonest chancers, in which case we may be forced to give them the back of our tongue.  The obvious question that arises is ‘who decides?’  Who is to say is a difference is important or not or characterise other socialists as honest or dishonest?

A central argument pushes towards this form of subjectivity.  It is to decry any scientific basis to Marxism, contrasting the objectivity of scientific laws with the voluntary action of human beings.  I see this as containing so many mistaken assumptions about the nature of science (and Marxism, and people) that it is hard to know where to begin.

First, science. The law of gravity is significant not because it is beyond our ability to control but because we can use our knowledge of it to exercise a degree of control over nature.  It is not some timeless objective knowledge but, like all other knowledge, a human construct.  Like all human constructs it is subject to change. 

For non-scientists the word science is often a substitute for the word certainty. But practicing scientists are always uncertain.  Recently environmental scientists issued a statement confirming that global warming was a result of human activity with a 95% level of confidence.  That didn’t mean they weren’t sure of their results – just that the tools of analysis at their disposal did not allow a greater level of certainty.

What the methods of science allow is a materialist base that reduces very complex systems to simpler theories and laws on which it is possible to debate, test by experiment, and come to conclusions, for example, when weaknesses in Newton’s theory of gravity led to it being supplanted by Einstein’s theory.

Human thought and society are not immune from the methods of science, but a purely reductionist and materialist explanation of these (what Engels called vulgar materialism) is usually insufficient, and that was one of the driving forces behind the evolution of Marxism. (In fact Engels saw the scientific method in general as insufficient and wrote The Dialectics of Nature as a more fundamental explanation of reality).  Marx developed explanations of capitalist development based on the law of value and a theory of historical materialism that saw the superstructure of society as resting on a materialist substructure of the means of production.

The ISN author gives an account of history; “humans make their own history, though not without being weighed down by circumstances beyond their control”.

What Marx said in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ was:

“Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them, have to fashion the material handed down by the past.”

However this quote, as with so many other quotes from Marx, does not stand alone.  For his perspective one of the things handed down from the past is human thought and understanding themselves.  He explains this in the Author’s Preface to the ‘Critique of Political Economy’:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will ... The sum total of these relations of production constitute the economic structure of society – the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness ... It is not, the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”

The whole Marxist concept of dialectical materialism arises from the need to explain how people’s consciousness can arise from historical materialism while at the same time having a level of autonomy that allows us to intervene in history and change it.  Our lives aren’t absolutely ruled by the past, but the constraints of the past can reach inside our head and limit the ways in which we think about liberating ourselves. The internal logic of Marxism is a way in which we can step aside from our material conditions and think more freely.

From this perspective the ISN critique of Marx as contradicting himself, getting things wrong, leaving gaps and not having to grapple with the modern world couldn’t be further from the point.  It’s a bit like criticising Newton for the incomplete nature of the Principia, or Darwin for not explaining all the detail of evolution.

The main thing about Marxism, as with science, is that the methods employed allow progress and development of understanding.  Marxism progresses by carrying out reality checks between theory and practice and by using the critical tools it itself developed to produce new and more advanced theory. Once it is accepted that Marxism is not just a label for competing opinions of equal value the grounds for the quite savage dismissal of Leninism and Trotskyism as quasi-religious dogma fall away.  Both men took up practical and theoretical questions that had not been resolved by ‘classical’ Marxism and presented solutions that enabled the workers movement to move on and also provided an enormous explanatory power that lives to this day in their writings.  The list includes: theories of imperialism, how a working class under the hegemony of capital can develop its own programme, the possibility of workers power in societies that had not fully developed as capitalist, a critique of social democracy, an analysis of the decay of the first workers state as it occurred and a description of the new phenomenon of fascism.

From this point of view the idea that groups calling themselves Marxist can disagree about issues like parliamentary democracy is not the killer blow that the ISN author thinks it is. If Socialist Democracy argues, as it does, that there is a Marxist position that workers cannot take power simply through winning parliamentary majorities, then we are able to draw on a wealth of theory to support that.  Not only that, but we are also able to look at historical examples where the project of taking power through parliament was attempted and the disastrous outcomes for the workers movement of that attempt.  Did Salvador Allende die so long ago? Are we supposed to forget the Iron heel of Pinochet or that there already existed plenty of information within Marxist theory to indicate the outcome of the Chilean experiment?

An appeal to Marxist theory is not an assertion of dogmatic certainty.  Such absolute certainty has no place in Marxism.  What it is, is an attempt to place debate within the methods and concepts of Marxism and prevent ill-informed rants based simply on individual opinion that go nowhere.

Of course it is true that dogmatic cults live within Marxism, although it would be news to me if they were confined to Leninism and Trotskyism.  It is certainly true that Lenin and Trotsky got many things wrong.  It is true that there were many non-Leninist currents.  However if Marxism is an organised body of knowledge operating within a particular framework of theory and method, then it is not enough to show that these non-Leninist currents existed. It is also necessary to show that these currents provide superior explanations of the mechanisms of class struggle in the central areas of theory that Lenin and Trotsky developed. 

The vision of the ISN article owes more to Plato and a philosophy of idealism than it does to Marx. The underlying assumption is that we have to come to programmatic agreement.  Why?  Why can’t Marxists and socialists disagree with each other?  If people in the same organisation disagree politically, as they do in most organisations, why are the organisations themselves to be forced into agreement? The truism that any programme or strategy is provisional and has to be open to constant revision is followed by the assertion that the best way to carry out the necessary revisions is through open debate and discussion among radical activists. The activists should consider alternative points of view on their merits and trying to form a synthesis of the best insights from different sections of the Left. 

How do we decide on the merits of different positions? The ISN claims that we can avoid a descent into ‘wishy-washy relativism’. How can this be done if there is no theoretical ground on which to stand and if the definition of Marxism is so broad that all we can say is that it stops somewhat short of Tony Blair? Does it stop short of Eamon Gilmore?

There are two further questions:  Is the method of open discussion put forward in the ‘Life of Brian’ article the method of the ISN? If so, where were the open non-sectarian discussions that led to the formation of the Campaign for an Independent left? What was the mechanism that led to the 11-point plan of unity and where does that plan stand now? Where were the discussions that led to the subsequent withdrawal from the CIL? Discussions of left strategy now that we see the outcome of the elections?   Will this article be welcomed as part of the fraternal discussion envisaged by the ISN author or is it so poisonous that it must be cast into the outer darkness?

Is there an alternative method for achieving unity?  We in Socialist Democracy believe that there is.  Why not agree to work together in action?  There are issues such as privatisation where the working class are under threat and there are common socialist positions. Why not unite around these issues?  The truth is that much of the Irish left is unremittingly sectarian not on issues of political programme but on issues of organisational influence.  We see over and over again issues where there is a very large level of political agreement but where organisations set up their own mini-fronts and divide and weaken the overall struggle.  The advantage of unity in action is that it cuts out all this waffle about who is the true revolutionary because the campaign is open to all, while at the same time allowing competing ideas to be put to the old-fashioned Marxist idea of praxis, where competing theories can be confirmed or falsified by class struggle.

The idea that the Irish left is riven by theoretical dispute is simply laughable. The various articles about sectarianism, mostly ignoring the points that their opponents make, are the nearest the left has come to discussion for some time. What has been happening is far more serious.  Denunciations of political sectarianism have led to denunciations of Leninism and Trotskyism as in some way sectarian in their very nature.  Now the idea that Marxism could have a scientific or theoretic base that could guide debate and action is itself dismissed as sectarian.  Its hardly a surprise that the author of the ISN article feels it may be time to conclude that calling themselves Marxist may be more trouble than its worth. 


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