Abstaining from bad sects

Sectarianism, left cadre organizations, and ultra-leftism too often create a squabbling, ineffective, sometimes fanatical left, filled with schisms and splinter groups. Chip Berlet explores this in an article written in 1999 but just as true now.

An excerpt.

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.”

They also see themselves as the true leaders of the coming revolution, the vanguard whom the working class will unquestionably recognize one day. Then they (the self-appointed anointed) will lead the masses in smashing capitalism. That dozens of other left grouplets also view themselves as the true leaders does indeed lead to sometimes vicious factional fights.

I was purged from such a group, PSL, two years ago (but was walking away anyway. PSL was formed a few years ago when several dozen members of Workers World split off, the result of a internal struggle. At that time WW controlled the ANSWER Coalition. The members who left took ANSWER with them and started PSL.

I was in ANSWER prior to the split and was thinking of joining WW. I asked Peter Camejo, who I knew from the Green Party, about them. He said he’d talked with WW and that they were upfront with him about starting ANSWER as a way to recruit for the party. He was trying to warn me off. The split happened, and I joined PSL mostly out of curiosity but increasingly got disillusioned with their ever-hardening myopic party line and tactics. It took me three years to understand Camejo’s warning. He was right and had been there himself. He ran for US president for Socialist Workers Party in 1976 and got expelled a few years for refusing to back the SWP policy of forcing members to work in factories, often by making them move too, so they could be proper proles.

The problem with groups like this, and their front organizations, is you can’t have it both ways. Either you build a genuine mass organization, which means moderates and those not affiliated with your group have a real say or you use the front group primarily as a recruiting tool, which means the stated purpose for the group is secondary, and you will never become a mass organization because you deliberately exclude all but the true believers.

ANSWER organized massive anti-war protests that sometimes drew hundreds of thousands. This was important. But it never translated into a genuine mass movement because WW and PSL would not allow moderates to have any genuine influence or power. So, the whole process ends up being self-defeating and self-limiting.

One thing I genuinely do not understand is the almost complete failure by the left to organize on the financial crisis the way they did on the Iraq War. We have a humongous crisis of capitalism and the response from the left has mostly been crickets. I don’t get it.

It might be because there’s a tendency for lefties to say ‘capitalism is bad’ and leave it at that, perhaps because they don’t really understand economics and financial matters that well.

Contrast that with blogs written by financial insiders like Zero Hedge, Naked Capitalism, and The Big Picture. They tend to be more libertarian but are seriously pissed. ZH broke stories about high frequency trading and dark pools, and on at least one occasion, forced Congress to take action. Their articles are in-depth, knowledgeable, and scathing.

The left can do this too, and in the process will attract interest and followers, and that can lead to the building of a genuinely an mass organization to fight against the current financial excesses and predation.


  1. Camejo wasn’t expelled because he refused” to back the SWP policy of forcing members to work in factories”. He has explored his differences with the SWP and the sectariianism of far left groups in some detail after 1983. and remained ‘Leninist’ in his perspective. He also was a supporter of the US ISO at the time of his death — actively engaging, and working, with them and attending and speaking at their conferences.

    So to fit Peter Camejo up with a shrill anti- far left party stance is a bit dishonest. He was much more considered in his political assessments.

    The Workers World crew are also making a call for left unity which may stimulate some interesting discussion on the US left.

    • Also, the SWP, once a vibrant organization with money and organizers across the US in the late 70s was morphing into the tiny, sectarian, lunatic Jack Barnes cult. It was better in the 60s and early 70s, when Peter was an SWP/YSA organizer. I just read his auto-bio, North Star. Peter actually did work in the factories until he told the SWP he was taking a break from SWP. They lied and said he resigned, they wanted him out for a while.

      He felt that many far left groups speak in language that the masses do not understand and isolate themselves from the people by having ideological fights about what Trotsky was really about.

      Peter says in his book that Marx was right, and he is strongly OPPOSED to Stalinism, but even with Marx and lenin, we cannot be dogmatic about their theories. Times have changed and we cannot stick to the theories to the point of ignoring reality.

      He also think that the Left needs to take more of a cue from the slavery abolitionists movements.

      • I completely agree that the far left speaks in language that confuses and alienates people, especially in the US, where there is little exposure to socialism. A Brit might not agree, but at least will know what socialism is. Not so in the US.

        Ditto for changing with the times and not trying to force current facts to fit your predetermined hypothesis.

  2. This is just a little blurb on my own departure from the PSL after 6+ years. There is so much to get into, but I promised Bob I would keep this short so I will just go into the immediate reason for my departure from PSL.

    The political question which led to my immediate departure is kind of a doozy. Basically you had to vote for all the slots on a delegate ballot to have your ballot count in an election. Problem was, if not all the choices available were to your liking then you were kind of in a bind. Either vote for someone you don’t really want to fill up slots on your ballot just to have your ballot count or basically abstain from the whole voting process because you couldn’t fill up a couple slots.
    Whenever I have explained it to anyone outside the PSL they have given me mostly quizzical looks. (I have explained it to some people in PSL too and they have not been able to give me an adequate explanation.) Sometimes I think they assume they are missing something but even in those cases given a modest amount of time for a thorough explanation the extent of how warped a sense of political participation the PSL leadership has is allowed to sink in and can only be described as unbelievable.
    The situation is so warped that it almost reaches the level of caricature. Remember that book about farm animals that Orwell wrote that was such a favorite tool of red baiters? Well, I hesitate to say it, but it’s kind of on that level of bad. Up is down, bad is good, and full participation means behaving like a good little soldier and voting for something you don’t want to vote for. Because, that’s democracy for you — and if you don’t like it… well, you were probably always unhappy anyway so it must have been a problem with you. (Isn’t it always?)

    The fact that I was shouted down at an internal political meeting when I brought up the democratic point related to this flawed voting process just takes the cake when I talk to people about it. Saying people should be forced to vote for something they do not want is flat wrong. It doesn’t even matter if they have strong feelings about it, but when they do it’s even worse. For the vast majority of people, voting is supposed to be an affirmative act. It is supposed to be something you want to do, for something you want to vote for. We already lived in a flawed democratic system where the people we vote for usually don’t represent our interests. Why would you start off a new group that’s supposed to work for progressive causes on the wrong foot by tying it down to a flawed voting process from the beginning?

    But, even allowing that there was some unseen rationale for justifying these types of procedures, why would you shut down discussion on the issue?

    It’s almost ludicrous the way these people approach political participation. They act like they are the lords and you are the subjects and you will only be allowed to speak when they deign to let you do so.

    Fact of the matter is you can’t have a democratic discussion when one person gets to decide who does or does not speak. Doesn’t matter if people come to that person’s defense or support them after the fact.

    It’s almost like a bad stereotype of an authoritarian Marxist “leader.” Maybe other people have had enough experience to know better. Who would have thought anyone could be so afraid of losing control that they would be afraid of a little discussion. Last time I checked someone raising their hand to talk about democratic participation is not something that should strike fear in the hearts of man. Obviously this was a naïve position.

    If there is no truly democratic forum then you can not truly address issues of substance. After looking at it a while, it seems pretty clear that’s what was intended all along. There have been a number of reprehensible behaviors which certain people (ie, the “leaders”) have been allowed to get away with. Some of these involve class privilege, chauvinism, women’s oppression/domestic abuse, undemocratic tendencies, etc. It has been in the interest of those in control to keep a tight lid on any dissent or even information about people’s behavior in order to make sure things go as planned. What that “plan” is the leaders have not deigned to let us know. I guess we’re just supposed to “trust them” but they never seemed too interested in wanting to trust us.

    I will just give one glaring example, which is real, but almost seems like a caricature of a “Marxists” group. (There are many other examples, some of which I consider worse.)

    There was this guy, lets call him Martie McWar, who used to call for the expulsion of people in the PSL/ANSWER because they did not meet his “high standards” of what he considered to be a revolutionary. Now, some people like me would tell him outright that was wrong while others who I guess were sympathetic to him would say “we’re not at that point yet.” But Mr. McWar would not be dissuaded. So, while everybody thought things were cool he went around to the people he thought should be kicked out and made them feel unwelcome on his own time. For others he would pretend to be friendly then while they were drunk he would goad them into saying negative things, especially about the “leaders.” Mr. McWar would then run and snitch to the leaders and be protected because according to them he was just being “loyal.”(!)
    It’s like some weird demented macho frat boy quasi-Stalinist mentality which is hard to describe. Read that again and remember that I’m talking about a group that describes itself as Marxist-Leninist.

    Suffice to say I’m glad I stood up for myself and no longer have to put up with this type of behavior. I kind of look at it more and more like getting out of an abusive relationship. When you’re in one it’s hard to see how you could survive outside of it, but ultimately you need to draw a line, stand up for yourself and leave these abusive patterns of behavior behind. It’s hard not being in a political group but it’s even harder not standing up for your principles.

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