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Red Banner discusses socialist unity – is sectarianism the real enemy?

Joe Craig

18 August 2006

Socialist Democracy believes in socialist unity.  We dislike talking about left unity because left is a relative term and has been taken to include Sinn Fein.  This party supports the Good Friday Agreement, proposes Ian Paisley as First Minister of a sectarian State, and implemented privatisation of schools and closure of hospitals when it had some executive responsibility in the North.  It is a nationalist party and not a working class one.  Similarly we do not support unity with the Greens who are also not a working class party and are openly manoeuvring to enter a right wing coalition government in the South.

We believe unity must involve only those committed to socialist and working class politics - a belief that the working class must emancipate itself by taking political power into its own hands through destroying the existing capitalist state.  This is why we say a new, united socialist organisation must be revolutionary.  If it is not then someone or something other than the working class itself will be considered the agent of transformation.

This rules out unity with left bureaucrats who want to recreate a new Labour Party in which the parliamentary party would inevitably become the mechanism of deliverance.

Red Banner

In the latest issue of Red Banner an argument on socialist Unity is presented with which we would have much agreement.

Aindrias O Cathasaigh in ‘Drawing the line’ argues that unity must necessarily exclude reformism, which includes Stalinism, and must be based on a commitment to revolutionary socialism.  As a statement of where unity must start it could hardly be bettered, including as it does the necessity to fight alongside reformists when necessary while defending our own political banner.

Such an approach is opposed to current unity attempts which do not limit themselves to unity among revolutionaries, are based on electoralist projects, and deliberately reject unity on a revolutionary basis.

Aindrias however spends much of his argument criticising not reformism but sectarianism.  He does so because ‘in the kind of struggles socialists engage in, standing against sectarianism is usually more relevant and necessary than standing against reformism or Stalinism.’

His estimation of the sectarians could hardly be more damning: ‘the gap between their attitude and a truly socialist one is immense, as great as with reformism or Stalinism.  It is not a minor difference of tactics, but a major difference of principle.’

But this is not all.  Such sectarianism is so ingrained that to criticise such sectarians is akin to ‘blaming the Pope for being Catholic.’  Sectarianism is not a contingent feature but what they essentially are – ‘we should get on with proper socialist politics in spite of them.’  At most individuals can be won to genuine socialism from these sectarian organisations but only very exceptionally is this true of the organisations themselves.


So who are these people?  Well . . . we’re not told.

I’m afraid this reviewer doesn’t know.  In the Red Banner manner of discussion the severest judgements on organisations can be made but it would seem actually naming the object of criticism is not considered proper, sectarian perhaps?

This unfortunately has some negative consequences.  It does not allow readers sympathetic to the argument to confirm their agreement since they are not allowed to see its consequences.  In just what way does the criteria of genuine socialism from below damn a particular organisation?.  It does not allow the reader to judge whether the argument is applied correctly or fairly or consistently.  It does not allow those condemned to see the charge and attempt a defence.  It does not therefore allow any sort of due process.

We are not talking about a large number of organisations so it is possible to identify them.  Is Socialist Democracy irredeemably sectarian?  We would hope that we would not be judged in this way and would hold up our willingness to openly debate socialist ideas as evidence of our non-sectarianism. We would also present our initiation of a non-sectarian campaign against water privatisation in the North as further evidence.

But perhaps Aindrias would still consider Socialist Democracy sectarian.  If so he would have to explain why.  If unable to substantiate his case then we could justifiably turn round and accuse him of sectarianism by not supporting our inclusion in any unity initiative.

This is not an issue involving simply Socialist Democracy because every single organisation on the revolutionary left accused of sectarianism will respond in exactly the same way.  If accused of sectarianism it will defend itself and having done so to its own satisfaction will feel entitled to charge its accusers of sectarianism themselves.  They in turn will have to defend their own arguments.

In short there is no way short of open and candid argument to differentiate non-sectarians with whom unity is possible from those sectarians with whom it is not.  It would be wrong to attempt unity of some while excluding others without clear justification and a willingness to respond to objections.  Those who object would be entitled to ask if one sort of self-righteous sectarianism was not replacing another.


The criteria qualifying for unity would appear to be that an organisation or individual has to be revolutionary socialist and be non-sectarian.  This would appear to be defined as a commitment to socialism from below, which is necessarily democratic.  Negatively, sectarianism is defined as putting the interests of one’s own organisation above that of the working class as a whole.

A first point that can be made is that while this criteria is not unproblematic, in the sense that it does not give quick, obvious and unarguable answers, it does point in the right direction.  For example the argument from sectarians that their organisation does represent the interests of the working class is one that all socialist organisations would claim, otherwise they wouldn’t claim to be socialist. This claim however is rendered void if the organisation does not allow for democratic functioning within its own ranks.

The working class is divided in many, many ways and will contain a multiple number of views, even among the most class conscious sections.  An organisation that allows only one view within its ranks and prevents the development of others cannot by definition represent the interests of the working class because it has no mechanism to do so.

It cannot allow the various views that develop in the class conscious sections of the working class into its ranks and it has no means of deciding which of them is the most valid. 

The entirely valid search for agreement and unity of views within organisations (which will never actually be fully achieved) has been accomplished in some by one leadership view being imposed or uncritically accepted, to the point that no alternative ever arises.

Organisations of this character are inevitably sectarian because they are incapable of merging Marxism with the working class movement through creation of a real mass party which reflects and engages in the debates within the working class.  It should be noted that intolerance of political debate is just as much a characteristic of this as lack of commitment to democratic norms.  After all without willingness to provide and listen too different ideas there is no need for democracy.

Many on the socialist left have a contempt for political debate because they think nothing needs to be discussed.  Such individuals (not just organisations) are also sectarian.  In our experience this is a big, big problem.  Keep it simple so as not to confuse the workers seems to be the approach of most organisations.


Beyond this however what constitutes sectarianism is a political judgement and thus open to debate.  Of course it might be argued that the sectarian practices of some organisations are so obvious that little discussion is necessary.  However true this is the practices of sectarianism and opportunism (also correctly identified by Aindrias as a real problem) are endemic for a reason. They have real political roots and will be a permanent danger for any socialist formation. We should anyway be clear what constitutes sectarianism and opportunism and why they have arisen.

Since the current organisations all have different political programmes and perspectives there is no short cut to debating these out..  For example the refusal of the Socialist Party to oppose British imperialism is no small question.  The collapse of  Socialist Workers Party opposition to social partnership is also no mere detail.  Of course these judgements would be contested and we are willing to debate them but unity without clarity will be temporary and fragile.

It would be possible for Socialist Democracy to argue that both these organisations in effect support the peace process and have failed to mount opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.  Indeed the SP thinks that there is a left wing peace process waiting for their leadership while the SWP thinks the process has given socialists a great opportunity to ignore the political questions and unite workers on bread and butter issues.

We could therefore argue that the peace process and GFA conflict with socialism from below because they are the creations of imperialism and native reactionary parties, not of the working class, SP fantasies notwithstanding.  The SWP’s courting of a left union bureaucracy could similarly be rejected on the socialism from below principle since it starts from seeking an alliance with bureaucrats and not rank and file workers.

We are well aware that the link between the principle of socialism from below and opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and the current policy by some of not opposing social partnership in principle is not immediate and clear.  This means that it is not enough to say all those who declare in favour of socialism from below qualify automatically for membership of a united socialist organisation.  It will unfortunately not be that simple.  This shows why we need an open and honest political debate to determine the basis of unity.

Not the least of the reasons is that it will be much easier to win individual members of sectarian organisations to a non-sectarian unity if it can be shown in what way their existing organisation fails to uphold the interests of the working class as a whole.  This is also true of those who, while not members, count themselves as supporters of these organisations.

Sectarianism – Yes?

Finally we should be clear that however the boundaries of socialist unity are drawn we should expect the cry of sectarianism from some quarter or other.  It should not become a bogey word that prompts immediate retreat.

We are brought back to our starting point: that the unity we seek is the unity of working class organisations on a working class programme.  United activity with non-working class organisations is not excluded but we are not talking about political and organisational unity with middle class movements.

This is important because socialists are involved in united activity with such non-working class forces on a regular basis.  The grounds of this unity should not surrender essential socialist principles for the sake of initially greater numbers.  What constitutes a justified compromise and what involves unjustified surrender is once again a subject of debate.  Unfortunately most of the Irish left does not seem to know that such questions arise.

Let us take the anti-war movement as an example.  Despite being by and large organised by socialists the movement sought the widest unity on a simple stop the war message.  It sought and included middle class NGOs and labour movement bureaucrats.  The political challenge it could therefore mount to the government’s collaboration in the war was thus extremely limited since the continued involvement of such people would not withstand a policy of real opposition.  Thus we were expected to believe that the bureaucrats of ICTU were opposed to the war while they were embarking on another exercise in social partnership with the government collaborating with it.  The government itself would no doubt have noticed that this anti-war movement was no real challenge to it and that it could therefore afford to discount its mobilisations.

The anti-war movement was thus an appeal that the war not start, not a movement with a strategy to stop Irish collaboration with it.  When war started its policy beceme one of disclaiming responsibility - ‘not in my name.’  It was a classic protest movement that would object but not offer any longer term opposition.  How could it with this platform and these supporters?

Yet the left expressed surprise that the large demonstrations failed to build a movement.  The failure they said was because despite the numbers marching few became activists.  The movement failed to grow because the movement failed to grow.  But the leadership of the anti-war movement never gave anyone a reason to join it.  There was no political platform that they needed to sign up to beyond their existing moral revulsion at war and general pacifist illusions.  There was no apparent need for a movement since the campaign itself offered nothing more than another demo to join.

All this flowed from the barely conscious decision that the platform of the anti-war movement was to be the minimum necessary and that this would be determined not by the socialists organising it but by the middle class groups that could be encouraged to join its activities.  The union bureaucrats knew their own collaboration with the government would not be challenged.

To suggest that an anti-war movement that was anti-imperialist be created, one that made uncompromising opposition to the government part of its perspective and thus exposed collaborators like ICTU seemed outside the realms of debate.  Even making the proposals would be described as sectarian.  The alternative non-sectarian movement however allowed all sorts of charlatans to appear as anti-war and left no layer of people with any greater understanding of how these wars arise, or any understanding that they are all connected to one imperialist system requiring a socialist solution.

True to the economistic practices of the left the very act of demonstrating is supposed to raise the necessary level of consciousness.  Surrendering the basis of united activity to the lowest pacifistic illusions is therefore not an issue for it.

In Socialist Democracy we argued that what was necessary was a specifically working class campaign that was anti-imperialist.  One that challenged the bureaucrats who said they opposed the war to put their money where their mouth was and halt all collaboration with the government.  This does not preclude joint activities with anti-war campaigns that do not go beyond pacifist illusions but the old slogan – march separately, strike together! is apposite.  The task of socialists is to win the hegemony of such movements by convincing other opponents of war that they can only successfully do so under a socialist banner.  Instead the debate in the anti-war movement accepted the political parameters of the existing movement and split over the issue of direct action, an attempt to find a short cut answer to a political problem.


When we look at current attempts at unity we are struck by the fact that they take place at the most difficult level; at the level of elections in which most political agreement is required, since in elections parties have to give their programme for political power.

Invariably this programme involves not presentation in a popular manner of the essential ideas of Marxism but a populist or social democratic reformism.  The differences between the left groups on this score are usually secondary.

In fact on closer examination we usually see that what is involved isn’t unity at all but a non-aggression pact in which the different groups and individuals agree, or attempt to agree, not to stand against each other.  Some see even this as a small step forward but it is not.

The purpose of such pacts is not to build unity but to create better conditions for each group to build itself.  The opposite of unity.

The approach suggested by the Aindrias is a thousand times more honest and serious.  The purpose of this article is not to find fault but to express a concern born out of agreement.  The first concern is that in order to be successful we have to be as open and as clear as possible.

Red Banner has prided itself on opposition to sectarian denunciation and point scoring.  Aindrias’s estimation of much of the left however could hardly be more scathing.  Nothing is gained by refusing to tell readers which organisations he believes are without hope of redemption.  No step forward towards unity can be made without this knowledge.  Of course this will provoke heated debate but there is no way round this – such is the history of Marxism.

The second concern is related to this: the quest for unity will not be easy and even with Aindrias’s compass of socialism from below and opposition to reformism, Stalinism and sectarianism there is ample scope for disagreement.  We should be careful which differences are fundamental and which are tactical.  For example not all of Socialist Democracy’s criticisms of the left organisations leadership of the anti-bin tax campaign would exclude membership of a common organisation.  This does not mean we believe our criticisms are unimportant, even wrong tactics can lead to defeat while still only being tactics.  The question is whether differences are ones that involve betrayal of the unity and independence of the working class.

In the past we have offered two ways of overcoming these problems.  The first is to pursue open and honest debate about the way forward and the political basis for unity.  This means discussing the programme on which a united revolutionary socialist organisation should be built.  Red Banner is ideally suited to hosting such a debate.

The second is to take initiatives that establish the foundations for unity in action.  As an example we would hold up the anti-water privatisation campaign in the North.  It has a number of characteristics that we think identify the method to be adopted.  It is based on a real issue facing the working class and not one ‘invented’ to make socialist unity possible or easier.  It is thus aimed at united socialist intervention into the working class and is not an initiative aimed primarily at the rest of the left.  It has a clear programmatic basis, in this case opposition to privatisation. 

Secondly it is democratic and currently involves ourselves and the Irish Socialist Network.  This democracy is meant as the chief mechanism of involving the working class people we come across.  This means two things.  We discuss together what to do next and when we finally agree we all carry out the decision.  This means we have political discussions. We do not believe that allowing everyone to do what they want themselves constitutes democracy.

This sort of unity can play an important role in overcoming the problem of trust, which is held up by many as an important obstacle to unity.

In summation then we can say that the article by Aindrias on socialist unity is a good starting point for its creation.  It does not, and neither does this article, address all the questions that need to be answered but it deserves serious and close consideration.


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