Sectarianism, an inheritance from the counter-revolution that must be transcended
The Third Conference of left communist groups ended up dislocated. Two of the principal groups to have animated previous conferences (the Internationalist Communist Party (Italy) and the Communist Workers' Organization (Great Britain)) made their participation in future Conferences dependent on the closing of the debate on the role of the revolutionary party. The ICC rejected this condition.
For almost four years a number of revolutionary groups have tried to create a framework to facilitate the regroupment of political organizations of the proletariat. Given the present situation, this effort can be summed up in two phrases:
- there will certainly be no more conferences like the three which have already taken place;
- in order to be viable, the new conferences must: 1. shake off the remains of sectarianism which still weigh heavily on certain groups; 2. be politically responsible.
Readers interested in the detailed unfolding of debate at the Third Conference will be able to read the minutes which will be published shortly. What we would like to do here is to draw the lessons of the experience coming from the first three conferences.
These four years of strenuous effort "to regroup revolutionaries" have constituted the most serious attempt since 1968 to break down the isolation and division among revolutionary groups. Despite the gigantic weaknesses of the conferences, it is only by drawing out all the lessons contained in them that the general work of revolutionary regroupment can be followed up.
To go forward, it is necessary to understand the reasons which led to the dislocation of the Third Conference and to define from that what is necessary in order for the next conferences to take place.
The weight of sectarianism
A debate took place at the Second Conference between the PCInt (Battaglia Comunista, as its newspaper is called) and the ICC, concerning the sectarian attitude of those revolutionary groups which had refused to participate in the international conferences. The PCInt rejected the resolution, affirming - among other things - that the refusal by groups to participate wasn't a question of sectarianism, but of political divergence. Battaglia stated that we were chasing after a phantom hobby-horse called sectarianism, instead of concerning ourselves with the real question of political divergence. Because the PCInt was, itself, in the act of mounting this particular steed, it didn't see the need to corral it. Sectarianism does exist. It isn't a phantom. We've met it - throughout the work of these conferences.
What is sectarianism?
Sectarianism is the spirit of the sect, the spirit of the religious splinter group. In the religious world, the question of knowing what's true and what isn't is posed as a pure confrontation of ideas in the ethereal realm of abstract thought.
Since reality, the material practice of living mortals, is never considered to be superior to the sacred texts and their divine interpretation, and is never allowed to resolve debate; each sect - pitted against the others - is faced with only two possibilities. Either it can renounce its divergences and disappear as a separate entity or it can continue to live on its own, eternally isolated from, and opposed to, all the other ‘rival' sects.
Since social and material practice is not permitted to determine the truth, each isolated sect, inevitably cut off from all the others, must lovingly cultivate within its own pristine cell, its own truth.
In speaking of sects in the workers' movement, Engels said that what essentially characterized their existence was that they always gave pride of place to what differentiated them from the rest of the movement. And certainly it is this, the major expression of the sectarian disease, which isolates its victims from reality.
No matter what problem confronts them, sects are concerned with only one thing: how to establish what distinguishes them from the rest of the movement, while ignoring or condemning what they have in common with it. Their fear of openly recognizing what they share with the movement as a whole springs from their fear of disappearing. This caricatural manifestation of sectarianism hamstrung the work of all three conferences of the left communist groups, and finally led to the utter dislocation of the Third.
"No common declarations?"
The Third Conference opened in May 1980 amid events dominated by the menace of a third world war. All the contributions prepared for the Conference by the participating groups had underlined the seriousness of the situation, and had affirmed the position of the working class confronted with the danger of war: a third world war would have the same nature as the two previous world wars, ie imperialist; the world working class had nothing to defend in any bloc; the only effective struggle against war would be the struggle of the proletariat against world capitalism.
The ICC asked the Conference as a whole to take up a position on this question and proposed a resolution for discussion and amendment, if that proved necessary, which would affirm the position of revolutionaries faced with war.
The PCInt refused to sign it, and the CWO and L'Eveil Internationaliste followed suit. The Conference remained silent. Given the criteria determining participation in the conferences, each of the groups present inevitably shared the same basic positions on what attitude the proletariat must have in the event of world conflict or the menace of war. But the partisans of silence told us: "Watch it. As for us, we're not about to sign anything with just anyone. We're not opportunists." And we replied to them: "Opportunism is the betrayal of principles at the first opportunity. What we are proposing isn't the betrayal of a principle, but the affirmation of that self-same principle with all of our strength". The principle of internationalism is one of the highest and most important principles of the proletarian struggle. Whatever other divergences may separate the internationalist groups, few political organizations in the world defend it in a consistent way. Their conference should have spoken about the war and in the loudest possible voice.
Instead of that the conference said nothing ... "because divergences exist on what will be the role of the revolutionary party tomorrow". The content of this brilliant, ‘non-opportunist' logic is the following: if revolutionary organizations can't succeed in agreeing on all questions, then they must not mention those positions which they do agree on and have agreed on for a very long time.
The specificities of each group are made, on principle, more important than what is common to all of them. That is sectarianism. The silence of all three conferences is the clearest demonstration of how sectarianism leads to impotence. (In all three, the PCInt, followed by the CWO, refused to produce any common declaration, despite the ICC's insistence.)
Conferences aren't a boxing-match
Select. Select. That was the only function which the PCInt and the CWO saw in the conferences.
But how to explain to a sect that it must consider the possibility that ... perhaps ... it could be wrong? How to get the sectarians to understand that in today's conditions it's an absurdity to say, that it's these conferences that will select the groups meant to construct the party of tomorrow?
Certainly in the revolutionary process, selection will take place among groups claiming to be part of the workers' movement. But such a selection arises out of the practice of the class or in relation to world wars, not as a result of discussion conducted behind closed doors. Even a split as important as the one which took place between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks wasn't concretized until the outbreak of war in 1914 and the struggle of 1917.
This is why to begin with, it is necessary not to over-estimate the capacity of ‘self-selection' through simple debate, or through conferences. Secondly, in today's conditions, debates between revolutionaries are far from the point where the questions under debate could be said to have been resolved in common. At the moment, the framework within which a debate can begin to take place in an effective and useful way for the working class has scarcely been created. Selection - speak of that at the required time.
Conclude a debate which hasn't happened?
Either out of impatience or fear, the PCInt and the CWO refused to continue to the end the debate on the problem of the party. This question is one of the most serious and most important questions confronting revolutionaries today, particularly in regard to their appreciation of the practice of the Bolshevik Party during the Russian Revolution (the repression of the workers' councils, of Kronstadt, the thousands of deaths ordered by the Bolshevik Party at the head of the state and the army). The debate on this question has never yet been seriously approached.
However, that didn't prevent the PCInt and the CWO from quite inexplicably deciding, one fine day, to declare the question closed, thus dislocating the conferences. They had suddenly discovered that they didn't agree with the ‘spontaneists' of the ICC.
Independently of the fact that neither the PCInt nor the CWO know what it means to say that a group is ‘spontaneist' (all they know is that ‘spontaneism' is something different from what they themselves think), it is at least inconsistent to declare a debate closed when it has never taken place, especially if the question is considered to be of the greatest importance and if this is used as a justification for remaining silent regarding the danger of world war. The seriousness of the question must make the necessity of discussing it that much more important.
The necessity for organized debate among revolutionaries
This debate must take place. Perhaps we will not succeed in resolving it before a new revolutionary wave of the scope of 1917-23 comes and decides the question in practice. But at least we'll reach the decisive battles with the problems correctly posed, with incomprehension and attitudes originating in the sect mentality swept to one side.
In relation to the role of the revolutionary vanguard, the period of struggle between 1917 and 1923 posed more questions than it answered. From the impotence of the newly-created German Communist Party in January 1919 to the bloody repression of Kronstadt by the Bolsheviks in 1921, the experience of the years of failed insurrection has shown us more what shouldn't be done, rather than what should. But still it's necessary to know what those years have shown us and what we can deduce from the experience. This debate isn't new. It has existed in its preliminary stages since the first Congresses of the Communist International. But inevitably, it is this debate which revolutionaries must take up again today in a serious, open, responsible, consistent way, in the face of the working class and all the new revolutionary groups which are developing, and are going to develop everywhere in the world. To consider this debate closed, finished, doesn't merely mean ignoring the meaning of the word ‘debate'; worse still it means running away from the historical responsibility placed on a revolutionary organization (even if this could seem an exaggerated contention in relation to some sects).
To refuse to conduct this debate within the framework of a conference of revolutionary groups is to refuse to conduct it in the only serious way that could allow it to progress.
Those who run away from this debate are really fleeing from the necessities facing the present-day revolutionary movement, such as it actually exists, in order to take refuge within their hard-and-fast, bookish certainties. Whether revolutionaries today prepare for it or not, this debate will take place within the class in future struggles, in the full glare of all the problems the class will encounter then. But those who refuse to clarify this question today, within an organized framework of discussion, will ensure that it is taken up by the class in the worst of conditions. And this is the case for the super-partyists of Communist Program (the International Communist Party (PCI)), the ‘anti-party builders' of the PIC (Pour Une Intervention Communiste), as much as the ‘non-opportunists' of the PCInt or the CWO.
How to express the tendency for the class
The tendency towards unification conforms to the nature of the proletariat as a class. The tendency for revolutionary organizations to unify is a manifestation of this. Like the class whose cause they have adopted, revolutionary organizations aren't divided by material interests. Contrary to the political organizations of the bourgeoisie, which incarnate and reflect the material interests of different factions of the exploiting class, revolutionary organizations express - above all else - the need for the conscious unification of the class. Revolutionaries debate and often have differences over how to effect this unity, but all their efforts must be given to trying to attain it. To be on a par with their class means that revolutionaries must be capable, first and foremost, of expressing the proletarian tendency towards unity, a tendency which makes their class the bearer of what Marx termed "the human community".
A dialogue of the deaf?
For a sect, dialogues with others obviously have no purpose. "We don't agree! We don't agree! We're not going to be convinced!" Why can't revolutionary organizations convince other revolutionary organizations through debate? They can, because it's only the sects who refuse to question their own certitudes.
How did all the revolutionary regroupments of the past come about if it's impossible for anyone to convince anyone else through debate? For the sect, to be convinced by another organization never leads to a new clarity. Debate, for the ‘programmists', is a matter of "fucking or being fucked" (as an article published in Programma Comunista put it). For the CWO and the GCI (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste), if you're convinced in a debate that means you've fallen victim to the imperialism of another group. In both cases, it's the worst evil that could happen. Something reserved for other groups, but never for one's own. That is the sect spirit.
Certainly debate is difficult. It is very possible, as we said above, that revolutionaries will not succeed in deciding these debates in the absence of great movements of the mass of the working class. But:
- The fact that the task is difficult isn't an argument against attempting it.
- Since 1968, new class practice has resurged throughout the entire world - from the USA to Korea, from Gdansk or Togliattigrad to São Paolo. This has created the basis for new reflection within the class and has faced revolutionary minorities with their responsibilities.
There's nobody deafer than those who don't want to hear. Let us hope that revolutionaries will not wait too much longer before they begin to hear the powerful sound of rumbling within the class, which is even now preparing the historical transformations of the future.
What the future conferences must be
A Point of Reference
The 1980s will see an unprecedented development of the class struggle under the pressure of the economic crisis. The evident bankruptcy of capitalism, the murderous impasse into which it will lead humanity if the working class doesn't react, makes - and will make - the proletarian revolutionary goal appear less and less as a utopian dream, and more and more as the only way of responding to the world holocaust which the survival of the system of exploitation carries within it.
The development of proletarian struggles is, and will be, accompanied more and more by the upsurge of new elements, circles, revolutionary organizations. These new forces, in seeking to become active and effective factors in the international struggle of the proletariat, are - and will rapidly be - confronted with the necessity of re-appropriating the lessons coming from the past experience of the world proletarian struggle. Whether for good or ill, it is the revolutionary groups whose existence has preceded the growth of these new forces of the class which have sought to define these lessons and have taken up the teachings of the past international workers' movement. Also, it is towards these organizations that the new elements will inevitably turn, sooner or later, in order to try to arm themselves with the fundamental gains of past experience in the workers' movement. One of the most important functions of the International Conferences is that of allowing these new forces of the class to find a framework where the task of re-appropriating past lessons can begin to be realized in the best possible conditions. This framework is a framework of open, responsible confrontation of positions between organizations situated on the revolutionary terrain, a debate linked to the struggles of the class which are actually taking place.
The echo which the three conferences of the groups of the communist left provoked, the interest raised by this experience in the US, in Algeria, Italy, Columbia... demonstrated, above and beyond the enormous insufficiencies of the conferences themselves, that this type of work responds to a real necessity in the revolutionary movement. That is why the continuation of this work constitutes, today, one of the first-ranking responsibilities in the intervention of revolutionary groups.
Criteria for serious participation in the Conferences
In order for the conferences to fulfill this function they must be organized around precise criteria determining participation, which will permit the best possible delimitation of a class terrain. These criteria can't be the result of a ‘brainstorm' on the part of a few organizations. Contrary to the initial idea of refusing to establish criteria, an idea put forward by the PCInt at the time of the preparation for the First Conference, the ICC has always defended:
- The necessity for criteria.
- The idea that the criteria had to respond to two requirements. On the one hand they had to take into account the principal gains coming from the last, international organization of the proletariat, which was an expression of the last wave of international revolutionary struggle between 1917-23, in other words the first two Congresses of the IIIrd International. On the other hand, the criteria had to be based on the principal lessons appearing as a result of the experience of World War II: the capitalist nature of the USSR and all the so-called ‘socialist' states, even those in the process of being labeled as such, the capitalist nature of all organizations from the Communist Parties to the Socialist Parties and including the Trotskyists, which ‘defend' such states.
The criteria of participation defined by the three conferences constitute, in this sense, a solid base for the future (apart from a few minor reformulations such as replacing the term "science of the proletariat" when speaking of Marxism, with that of "the theory of the proletariat").
Since the time of the IIIrd International, the important debates which had begun to unfold within it, particularly those between the Bolsheviks and the different ‘Lefts' from Western Europe, have been illuminated by more than sixty years of critical experience for the class. Questions such as those connected to the Party and its role, the nature of the unions in capitalism after World War I, the nature of ‘national liberation struggles', ‘revolutionary parliamentarism' and the tactic of the ‘united front', etc, have not lost any of their significance since then, It's not an accident that these are the questions which still divide revolutionary groups today.
But their importance and their seriousness only make more urgent and more inevitable the organized confrontation of revolutionary positions. The seriousness of the debate doesn't constitute an impediment to it taking place as the CWO and the PCInt (suddenly a ferocious partisan of ‘new criteria for selection') pretend. In this sense to close the conferences to groups holding divergent positions on these questions could constitute, in the present state of the movement, condemning the conferences to impotence. It would also mean transforming the conferences, very quickly, into a new form of ‘sect'.
The conferences don't represent regroupment in itself. They provide a framework; they are an instrument in the more overall and more general process of revolutionary regroupment. It's only by considering them as such that they can fulfill their function, not by precipitously searching to transform them into a new, definitive, political organization.
However, experience has proven - especially at the Third Conference - that general political principles don't constitute, in themselves, sufficient criteria. The next conferences must demand from their participants a real conviction in the usefulness and seriousness of the conferences, and hence how they should be conducted. Groups like the GCI participated in the Third Conference only to denounce it, and to use it as a ‘fishing ground' for recruitment. Such groups will have no place in future conferences.
The most obvious condition for the effectiveness of collective work is that those who want to undertake it are convinced of the usefulness of its goal. That should be self-evident, but it will be necessary to make this explicit in preparing future conferences. To remain silent is for revolutionaries to deny their own existence. Communists have nothing to hide from their class. Before their class, the class whose vanguard they hope to be, communists must assume their acts and their convictions in a responsible manner. For this reason, future conferences must break with the ‘silence' of the three previous conferences. Future conferences must learn how to affirm clearly and explicitly in texts and short, precise resolutions - and not in hundreds of pages of written minutes - the results of their work, whether it's a question of illuminating some divergences and what implications they bear, or whether it's a question of making clear the common positions shared by all the groups present.
The inability of the past conferences to put the real content of the divergences in black-andwhite was one indication of their weakness. The self-righteous silence of the Third Conference on the question of the war is shameful. The next conferences must know how to assume their responsibilities, if they want to be viable.
The regroupment of revolutionaries is a necessity and a possibility which goes hand-in-hand with the movement towards the unification of the world working class.
Those who today remain prisoners of the sect spirit imposed by years of counter-revolution and atomization of the proletariat, who ignore the task demanded of revolutionaries, and whose credo begins with the words "We are the one and only ones" will be mercilessly judged by history as irresponsible, egocentric sects.
As for us, we remain convinced of the validity and the urgency of the work towards revolutionary regroupment, however long, painful and difficult this task may turn out to be. It is within this understanding that we will continue to act.
 Organizations which participated at the Conference:
- Partito Comunista Internazionalista (PCInt which publish Battaglia Comunista)
- The International Communist Current (ICC)
- I Nuclei Leninisti (a fusion of the Nucleo Comunista Internazionalista and the Il Leninista)
- Groupe Communiste Internationaliste (GCI)
- L'Eveil Internationaliste
- The Communist Workers' Organization (CWO)
- L'Organization Communiste Revolutionaire Internationaliste d'Algeria (the OCRIA which publishes Travailleurs Immigres en Lutte) sent written contributions.
- The American group, Marxist Workers' Group, associated itself to the Conference and would have sent a delegate, but was prevented from doing so at the last minute.
 At the First Conference even refused to sign a declaration which tried to summarize the divergences.
 Nothing can replace organized oral debate concerning the present problems of the class struggle.
 It wasn't out of flippancy that Marx said that his personal motto was "Doubt everything". This was someone who never ceased throughout his life to combat the sect spirit in the workers' movement.
 Do these groups think that the Left Fractions of the IInd International, which were convinced by the arguments of Luxemburg, Lenin, Pannekoek and Trotsky to conduct the most intransigent struggle against the rottenness of Social Democracy, were victims?
 The criteria defined at the Second Conference determining participation in the international conferences were as follows:
- the recognition of the October Revolution as a proletarian revolution;
- the recognition of the split with Social Democracy, effected at the first and second Congresses of the Communist International;
- the unreserved rejection of state capitalism and self-management;
- the rejection of all the Communist and Socialist Parties as bourgeois parties;
- an orientation toward a revolutionary organization which refers itself to a Marxist doctrine and methodology as the science of the proletariat;
- a refusal to support the dragooning of the proletariat behind, in any form whatsoever, the banners of the bourgeoisie.
 The unfolding of the Conferences and their enlarging through the inclusion of other groups has not prevented regroupments from taking place among the participating organizations. Since the first conferences, the Nucleo Comunista Internazionalista and Il Leninista unified to form a single organization. Similarly, most of the elements which constituted the group For Kommunismen in Sweden, a group present at the Second Conference, have since constituted the section in Sweden of the ICC.