This essay first appeared as “Abstaining from Bad Sects: Understanding Sects, Cadres, and Mass Movement Organizations,” Resist Newsletter, Somerville, MA: Resist, Vol. 8, No. 10, December 1999. It has fallen off the website of Resist, so I re-publish it here due to several recent requests. It may be of interest to the Occupy Wall Street movement, now facing parasitic sectarian organizing, conspiracy theorists, bigots, and right-wing recruiters.
Any experienced activist can tell tales of trying to unravel the Gordian Knot of the relationships among mass organizing, sectarianism, left cadre organizations, and ultra-leftism. To describe cadre-based sectarian ultra-leftists as tedious and disruptive is a charitable understatement. Wait! Grab hold of that last sentence and examine it.
Sectarianism, cadre groups, and ultra-leftism are three separate issues. Those successful at juggling these tendencies in a real organizing campaign usually start by understanding that there are differences among ideological tendencies and the people who marry them, and there are differences between structures and styles. Rather than lumping everything and everyone together in a prejudiced and stereotypic way, lets unpack the box.
The term sectarianism originated with the Protestant Reformation starting in the 1500s. From the vantage point of the Vatican, Protestantism began as a form of sectarianism., when a small espoused different religious convictions and separated from the “one true church.” This group formed its own religious body and established its own principles and leadership, separate and apart from the Vatican. The response, of course, was to condemn this new protesting sect, consign all those who disagreed with the Catholic Church and its tenets to hell, and–since they were heretics–also revoke all earthly rights. Protestantism soon spawned more sects, who denounced each other for heresy. Some leftists have borrowed this theme with unsettling enthusiasm.
Today, the term sect in discussions of religion can have a far different meaning than sectarianism in the political left. A religious sect can simply be a relatively small group organized around a distinctive set of theological principles. Since these principles are seen as ordained by God, they demand obedience. When a sect tries to enforce these views on everyone, member and non-member alike, the sect becomes sectarian. In this discussion the term “sectarian” refers to an inappropriate demand for a mass group to accept uncritically the ideological precepts of a specific group or individual.
The rise of various religious fundamentalist governments and factions (such as in Iran, Algeria, India, Pakistan, Israel, and many other parts of the world) represent another type of religious sectarianism. In our own country, we can see similar themes in the theocratic wing of the Christian Right.
Sectarianism can have roots other than religious. A form of racialized sectarianism plagues the Balkans and parts of Africa, but it can be seen in the violent attacks on Blacks, Jews and Asians by followers of far right ideologies in the US, with echoes in the electoral politics of David Duke and Pat Buchanan.
Both racial nationalism and religious nationalism are sectarian forms of a right wing populist backlash against globalization of the world economy for the benefit of transnational corporations. Right wing, because instead of seeking to broaden democratic participation, it seeks to build a strong coherent homogeneous group to defend against the socially destructive forces of corporate globalization in a way that demonizes, excludes, and oppresses scapegoats seen as outside the core group. This form of right wing populism can be dangerous, but its crude anti-elite critique can seem attractive to some on the left.
Cadres and Ultra-Leftism
Cadre organizations are built along strict lines of obedience to the group’s ideology, strategy and tactics. They are sects with particular features involving hierarchical structures and organizational practices rooted in Leninism. Often they are obligated to articulate a specific line or script (or “frame” in sociological jargon) regarding a variety of topics.
One way to enforce a single ideological line or a specific strategy or tactic is to use a process called “democratic centralism.” Under democratic centralism, cadre are expected to engage in a frank discussion and debate internally with other cadre and the group’s leadership. However once a specific position is arrived at, cadre are expected to support the decision, and refrain from any disagreement with or criticisms of the “line” with persons or groups outside of the cadre organization. When people talk about “The Party Line,” they mean the line the cadre group members are bound to uphold in public.
Ultra-leftism is an egocentric form of mythopoetic martyrdom whereby practitioners anoint themselves as the beleaguered guardians of the one true political line. They read long impenetrable manifestos at public meetings. They show up at mass demonstrations with helmets and hockey sticks for a game of self-fulfilling prophecy that often results in violence as they hurl themselves at police. They inevitably urge a course of action that is hopelessly out of touch with reality. Even Lenin called this an “infantile disorder.”
Theory, structure, organizational practice, and individual behavior interact in complex ways.
Cadre organizations indeed resemble “sects” in terms of internal organization and hierarchy, but not all cadre organizations or their members are “sectarian” in organizational practice. Not all cadre organizations engage in ultra-leftist activities. Some cadre members of ultra-left groups can still act appropriately as individuals in mass organizations.
Andrew Feenberg in “Paths To Failure: The Dialectics of Organization and Ideology in the New Left” discusses how sectarianism and ultra-lefitism can create a false sense of achievement. Looking at the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s, Feenberg, argues the attraction of “sectarianism and ultra-leftism sustained its energies for several decisive years while dispersing its audience.”
“Sectarianism in the movement was based on a sense of moral superiority that was effective in motivating an in-group but incompatible with its expansion among those sympathetic to its program. Moral heroism mobilized the troops, but it was accompanied by a characteristic romantic elitism rooted in a sense of differentness, of sacrifice and oppression.”
“New left sectarianism was often conjoined to ultra-leftism, the systematic failure to employ strategies realistically adapted to the situation at hand. Instead, many new left groups preferred to substitute individual morality for politics and became obsessively concerned with establishing the revolutionary personal identity of their members at the expense of effective action on the real world. Ultra-leftists became adept at driving a wedge between principle and practice in every kind of situation, blocking the employment of even the most elementary instrumental intelligence in political work.”
In the mid 1970s thousands of left activists joined new cadre organizations. The results were mixed. Some individuals carried out successful organizing campaigns. Other groups sank into a totalitarian morass. In the worst scenario I witnessed, lesbian couples were broken up, told to marry heterosexual fellow cadre, and moved to industrial cities to “merge with the industrial proletariat.”
In Chicago in the 1980s I was asked by friends of my spouse to be parliamentarian at a founding meeting of a national US/Albanian Friendship Society. At the time, I was still collecting hours of such work needed to become a certified parliamentarian. I turned out to be one of the few attendees not in one of three competing Stalinist cadre organizations. Everyone was on their good behavior, however, and over several days we actually managed to draft principles of unity and a constitution and by-laws. I had quipped that if this group somehow managed to come up with democratic guidelines that didn’t require supporting the government of Albania or its political system, that even I would join. They did, so I paid my dues and have been red-baited ever since.
It was in this group that I finally took the time to understand the ideological rift between Moscow, China, and Yugoslavia, which occupied far too much conversation time among my leftist friends. I learned that in post-war Europe some of the countries had been semi-feudal; and that for survivors to side with the communists who had fought in the resistance, instead of re-installing Nazi-collaborationist monarchs and oligarchs who had looted the country, was hardly difficult to understand. I helped investigate the harassment of ethnic-Albanian Chicagoans who were protesting Yugoslav repression of Albanian intellectuals in the Kosovar region (premature anti-fascism redux). I made friends.
Unfortunately I also made enemies. At one point some cadre member who held an elected position in the local group fell out of favor with her party’s leadership. At the next meeting all of her former colleagues arrived with the same script. She was no longer doing a good job. She must be removed. I protested that what was happening was obviously a decision by a cadre organization to enforce conformity of action through democratic centralism. I argued that this was not appropriate in a democratic mass organization. It was clear that some of the individual cadre members were troubled by what was being asked of them. I gave an impassioned speech on the importance of moral conscience over blind obedience that had some of them in tears. Resistance was futile. They all dutifully voted to purge the poor woman from her meager post. She was also required to remain an active member…another humiliation.
My retribution was not to quit. I wasn’t in a cadre group and I was too well known to purge. I hung on until I left Chicago. What was left of the group threw me a going away party. There we were in a rented hall, the chair of the group, the purged woman who came to thank me, and me. That’s all that was left.
Block voting by cadre members in a mass democratic organization is one of the most destructive practices I have seen in the US left–and I have seen it far too often. It undermines the basic premise of actual debate, the informed consent, that makes democratic practice possible.
Two Steps Back…
One response to sectarianism and ultra-leftism has been to condemn identity politics as reflecting new forms of those tendencies. To me this sounds like the voice of privilege complaining about how annoying it is to deal with those pestiferous people who keep pointing out how unfair the privilege is. My mental image is a support group for former slave holders after the civil war. Nobody likes to give up privilege and power (well, I certainly don’t) but I see it as an issue of fairness.
Jean Hardisty, in her book Mobilizing Resentment, acknowledges that a “theme common to nearly all those who discuss the state of the progressive movement and its future is our lack of agreement on a vision around which the movement’s different groups can coalesce.” According to Hardisty, “to blame ‘identity politics’ for the decline of the larger movement fails to look at the reason identity groups arose in the first place–the neglect of their input and their issues.”
Hardisty embraces the thesis of Francis Calpotura and Kim Fellner in their pamphlet, “Square Pegs Find Their Groove,” and summarizes their views as arguing that:
“…if all the people who are marginalized and excluded from power are to achieve real self-determination, progressive organizers must address not only class inequities, but also related forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism–even if these are not directly germane to a specific organizing goal…an uncompromising solidarity with marginalized groups is the bottom line of this model of grassroots organizing.”
You Can’t Judge a Book…
I have worked on organizing campaigns that were destroyed by sectarian ultra-leftism, yet I have worked on organizing campaigns where members of cadre organizations played an important leading and sustaining role. While I have never been tempted to join a cadre organization, I have seen the good–not just the bad and the ugly–emerge from such groups. Clearly there are some organizing campaigns where the energy and commitment of cadre groups sustains the work through dry spells. Therefore, it is not the cadre organization itself that poses the problem.
In the 1950s the National Lawyers Guild refused to purge its members who were members of the Communist Party. Today there are Guild members who are cadre in a variety of communist groups along with a majority of unaffiliated members. As a paralegal investigator, I joined the Guild in the 1970s. I found an example of an organization that tried hard to incorporate the participation of cadre within a democratic structure.
Easy? Are you crazy? The cacophony at some meetings makes “Star Wars” seem like a minimalist film. I have chaired committee meetings with debates featuring cadres from Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, and Maoist groups, along with Marxists, anarchists, libertarians, and progressive independents–interacting with a preponderance of reluctant Democrats–all intertwined with multiple alternate identities as lawyers, legal workers, labor organizers, tribal sovereignty activists, civil liberties and civil rights advocates, environmentalists, feminists, gay men and lesbians, and people of color.
Bernice Johnson Reagon has discussed the practical problems of coalition work in terms of risk and discomfort. She built a metaphor around her problems breathing due to being at a high altitude for the first time at a 1981 meeting of women in Yosemite National Forest:
“You got one group of people who are in strain–and the group of people who are feeling fine are trying to figure out why you are staggering around, and that’s what this workshop [on coalition politics] is about this morning.”
“I wish there had been another way to graphically make me feel it because I belong to the group of people who are having a very difficult time being here. I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”
In real life, a mass democratic organization needs to establish principles of unity that apply to both the goals of the group and its internal operating procedures.
Can cadre organizations relate to the mass-based group in a principled manner? Can members of cadre organization abide by the principles of unity established by the mass-based group? The issue boils down to behavior. Do individual people behave appropriately? If not, is there a process to deal with their behavior that is problematic?
Principled opposition needs to be respected within a mass organization as long as it is not disruptive to a degree that threatens the existence of the group. Some disruption is inevitable, even healthy. How else would people of color, women, and gays and lesbians assert their right to be treated with respect? If a group cannot accommodate these issues of respect, then its existence is problematic, and maybe a mass exodus and formation of a new group with new principles of unity is a good outcome. The trick is to find the balance between the constant struggle that democratic and inclusive practice requires, and the ability of the group’s goal to be pursued without endless splits. As Reagon graphically explained, real coalition work is hard.
Individuals who repeatedly engage in disruptive behavior should be expelled from a group, as long as some sincere attempt is made to reconcile the person to the group’s principles of unity regarding appropriate behavior. Nothing is more destructive in a mass organization than rumors claiming someone is a secret member of a cadre cell, or a police agent, or mentally unbalanced. Some people are just disruptive, for whatever reason. It is essential that the objective effect of the behavior be the focus, not the assumed intent or cause of the behavior.
It is not fair for cadre organizations to send blocks of cadre members bound by democratic centralism (or other mandates to conform to a single line) into mass organizations to commandeer debates and votes. It is manipulative, elitist, and profoundly undemocratic.
Members of cadre organizations need to be sensitive to the fact that their presence changes the dynamics of mass organizations, and learn to tread lightly. They may see themselves in the vanguard, but history makes that judgement. Insisting it is so will not speed up the process. Everyone needs to persuade others by the force of their ideas and the exemplary character of their actions…not by brute force.
Leaders of mass organizations need to be sensitive to the fact that in a truly democratic organization, every voice must be heard. It is not appropriate to silence real or imagined cadre members because of a presupposition that the message will be a repeat performance or that a cadre is just parroting the party line. So what? Either the ideas are persuasive or they are not.
Activists in cadre organizations get to proselytize and even recruit, as long as they do the work, and abide by the principles of unity agreed to by the mass organization. Groups get to set the rules for time, place, and manner. The usual time is before and after the main event. I usually tell cadre members I will listen to their pitch if they will listen to my tirade on why the concept of “democratic centralism” is an oxymoron.
Organizer Suzanne Pharr, wrote In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation, in which she urges that within the movement we must “Create principled internal politics and healthy standards for work and working conditions:”
“Be respectful of everyone. Do not act martyred. Build relationships that include more than work: celebration, ritual, play. Use positive humor whenever possible and often. Get a life, have a life, live a life–as fully and joyously as imaginable.”