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The Joy of Sects: Marx and Engels on Senile Leftism

Al Richardson

A PERMANENT FEATURE feature of the labour movement in English-speaking countries is the coexistence of a mass trade union movement, with or without a large reformist party, and a number of splinter groups, which, even if they do not originate in impotence, rapidly decline into it. Workers who belong to the mass organisations look on bemused, jostled on their left by organisations with names not much smaller than their membership lists, and with pretensions considerably larger.

Since this deep rift between "Marxism" and the mass movement is generally viewed as a conjunctural phenomenon, reasons of varying validity are advanced to explain it – the betrayals of the Labour or trade union leaders, revisionism, the worldwide disintegration of Stalinism, the crisis of the Fourth International, etc. Obviously, there is a certain amount of truth in all these rationalisations, but because this situation has been with us for more than a century, they can only be accepted as partial explanations. The real reason must lie much deeper, and the fact that the majority of those who regard themselves as Marxists are to be found in these more or less impotent groups, whilst the mainstream labour movement goes merrily (or sadly) on its way regardless, is obviously a life or death question as far as we are concerned.

Sectarianism, being an expression of religious and not scientific consciousness, is far older than Marxism, and the world in which Marx and Engels began to develop their ideas was pullulant with one strange sect after another. Since they faced, and to a certain extent overcame, this problem, it should interest us to find out what they thought about it, and examine the methods they elaborated to deal with it. And, although normally I would never dream of writing after the manner of the Marxist Review, since Marx and Engels did not write systematically about the question but tackled it as the need arose their remarks are scattered over a number of years, and this will involve reproducing a large number of quotations so that they can all be drawn together in a compact and usable form. I have to admit that I do this not without a certain amount of trepidation, since every time I point out what the Marxist pioneers actually had to say, I am either subjected to columns of hysterical abuse, or accused by the likes of Ernie Haberkern of the exegesis of biblical texts. So I will begin with an apology, but press on regardless.

The roots of British "Marxism"
We should note to begin with that our modern "Marxist" organisations, often quite self-consciously, trace their origins to the very sectarians denounced in their day by Marx and Engels. This not only applies to those Stalinist groups that hark back to some non-existent golden age and hope to "reconstruct" the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the linear descendant of these sects, but also to many Trotskyists, who believe that the Communist Party was a more or less healthy organisation until contaminated by Stalinism, and even to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which openly attacks the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) whilst reviving in its journals many of the myths of Stalinist historiography. There is obviously a compelling logic here that cuts across groups that otherwise differ widely, so we may as well trace it back to its origins.

Let us first of all remind ourselves that the CPGB was formed by putting together the British Socialist Party (BSP), a section of the Socialist Labour Party – a de Leonist split from the BSP – fragments of the Guild Socialists and of the semi-syndicalist South Wales Socialist Society, and a largely middle class portion of the ILP. All of these were small, eccentric and marginal to the class, with varying degrees of hostility towards one or other of its basic institutions. The largest and oldest of these groups, the BSP, which had only just affiliated to the Labour Party after a decade of hostility to it, and which had supported the First World War for two years, was the descendant of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), described by Engels in his day as "a feeble but power-hungry Socialist sect".1

His general description of the origins of sectarianism in Britain could not be bettered: "Do not on any account whatever let yourself be bamboozled into thinking there is a real proletarian movement going on here. I know Liebknecht is trying to delude himself and all the world about this, but it is not the case. The elements at present active may become important now that they have accepted our theoretical programme and so acquired a basis, but only if a spontaneous movement breaks out here among the workers and they succeed in getting control of it. Till then they will remain individual minds, with a hotch-potch of confused sects, remnants of the great movement of the forties, standing behind them, and no more."2

Those who happily trace their ancestry back to the SDF may well be upset at the depth of Engels' hostility, but this was firmly based. Marx's Capital was plagiarised for its first programmatic statement without even a mention of his name, it accepted Tory money to fight its first elections to split the Liberal vote,3 and its leader, "a wretched caricature of Lassalle",4 attempted to negotiate with Joseph Chamberlain for a place in parliament. "It is so important to break up the Social Democratic Federation as quickly as possible", wrote Engels to Bebel, "its leaders being nothing but careerists, adventurers and literary people."5 He was as good as his word, and supported the split of Belfort Bax and William Morris to form the Socialist League, which initially advocated the idea of a general party of labour for the British working class, before itself succumbing to sectarianism once again.6

We shall return later to this demand for a general party of labour as a strategy for the future development of Marxism in this country, but let us first examine what Engels found so objectionable about the SDF. Speaking of Bax (for whom he had a higher regard than our present generation of the politically correct), he wrote: "He was editor of Justice for six weeks, removed all the many improprieties but was absolutely incapable of giving the sheet any other than a sectarian character (for if he could he would certainly have done so). After all, the SDF is purely a sect. It has ossified Marxism into a dogma and, by rejecting every labour movement which is not orthodox Marxism (and that a Marxism which contains much that is erroneous), that is, by pursuing the exact opposite of the policy recommended in the Manifesto, it renders itself incapable of ever becoming anything else but a sect."7

What exactly was this policy recommended by the Manifesto will emerge later on, but let us first give Engels the floor to develop his analysis: "The Social Democratic Federation here shares with your German-American Socialists the distinction of being the only parties who have contrived to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. This theory is to be forced down the throats of the workers at once and without development as articles of faith, instead of making the workers raise themselves to its level by dint of their own class interest. That is why both remain real sects and, as Hegel says, come from nothing through nothing to nothing."8

Marxism and sectarianism
So if the origins of British "Marxism" lay in Socialist sectarianism, what exactly did the pioneers of Marxism mean by "a sect"?

Marx's basic definition is to be found in his well-known letter to Schweitzer, that "the sect seeks its raison d'être and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement".9 (Anybody who has come so far without already thinking about "Soviet Social-Fascism" (Maoism) "State Capitalism" (SWP), "Pabloite Revisionism" (WRP), "Centrism" (Workers Power), or "Bureaucratic Collectivism" (Alliance for Workers' Liberty) is obviously not exercising the requisite historical imagination.) The outstanding mark of a sect is, of course, its claim to possess a universal remedy for the movement's problems. Speaking of Lassalle (who still stands head and shoulders above his modern imitators), Marx pointed out that "he gave his agitation from the beginning the character of a religious sect, as does every man who claims to have in his pocket a panacea for the suffering masses. In fact, every sect is religious.... He fell into the same error as Proudhon, of not seeking the real basis for his actual agitation in the actual elements of the class movement, but of trying to prescribe the course of the movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe".10

And when Marx calls sects "reactionary", he is not using the term as an all-purpose swear word, as is all too often the case these days. His view was that sectarianism belongs to the childhood of the working-class movement, part of its necessary development until its coming of age: "The first phase in the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is marked by sectarianism. This is because the proletariat has not yet reached the stage of being sufficiently developed to act as a class. Individual thinkers provide a critique of social antagonisms, and put forward fantastic solutions which the mass of workers can only accept, pass on, and put into practice. By their very nature, the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief, to any unified movement. The mass of the proletariat always remains unmoved by, if not hostile to, their propaganda.... All these sects, though at first they provide an impetus to the movement, become an obstacle to it once it has moved further forward; they then become reactionary."11 Moreover, an alliance of mutually antagonistic sects created on the basis of a common false attitude to the mass movement obviously does not cease to be sectarian, and is bound to be inherently unstable and internally explosive, as those who have survived the experiences of the Socialist Alliances, the Scottish Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) or the United Secretariat of the Fourth International's "recomposition" (or rather, decomposition) can well appreciate.

As Engels told Bebel: "One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for ’unity’. Those who have this word most often on their lips are the ones who sow the most discord, just as at present the Jura Bakuninists in Switzerland, who have provoked all the splits, shout for nothing so much as for unity. These unity fanatics are either people of limited intelligence who want to stir everything into one nondescript mush, which, the moment it is left to settle, throws up the differences again but in much sharper contrast, because they will then be all in one pot (in Germany we have a fine example of this in the people who preach reconciliation of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie) – or else they are people who unconsciously (like Mülberger, for instance) or consciously want to adulterate the movement. For this reason the biggest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues shout loudest for unity at certain times. Nobody in our lifetime has given us more trouble than the shouters for unity."12

And since a sect is to be defined by its inverse relationship with the mass movement, the fact that it can for a brief period (like the SWP, Militant or the SLP) enjoy a limited success due to sheer activism, is not at all ruled out. As Engels again told Bebel, "each sect is necessarily fanatic and through this fanaticism obtains, particularly in regions where it is new ... much greater momentary successes than the party, which simply represents the real movement, without any sectarian oddities. On the other hand, fanaticism does not last long".13

Another distinguishing mark of a sect, according to Marx, is that its fortunes are always opposite to those of the mainstream movement of the working class. When the class movement is on the advance, sects dwindle to the level of their real importance (as the SWP, for example, during the 1984-5 miners' strike), but whilst the class remains dormant they strut across the stage like giants. This was not merely the case at the beginning of the working class movement, but has been a recurrent pattern ever since:

"The International was founded in order to replace the Socialist or semi-Socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle. The original Rules and the Inaugural Address show this at a glance. On the other hand, the International could not have asserted itself if the course of history had not already smashed sectarianism. The development of Socialist sectarianism and that of the real labour movement always stand in indirect proportion to each other. So long as the sects are justified (historically), the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. For all that, what history exhibits everywhere was repeated in the history of the International. What is antiquated tries to reconstitute and assert itself within the newly acquired form."14

The political content of sectarianism
Let us now switch from basic definitions of what sectarianism is to its ideological content. What strikes us immediately in this context is the basic consensus shared by most of the present groups that the main idea of Socialism is not the liberation of the working class, but a recipe for better personal relationships, of identity politics, of kindness to animals, of sexual self-advertisement, of "holistic eco-feminist perspectives" and the like, and that those of us who insist otherwise are "class reductionists" or suffering from "workerism".

As we come to read deeper in Marx and Engels, we realise that none of this is at all new. Already a century-and-a-half ago, the Communist Manifesto had denounced "philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, [and] hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind", accusing them point blank of desiring "the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements" – the working class, in other words.

Indeed, Marx and Engels had some very sharp things to say about what they in their day called "Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism":

"In the view of these gentlemen, the Social Democratic Party ought not to be a one-sided workers' party but a many-sided party of ’all men imbued with a true love of mankind’. This it is to prove, above all, by divesting itself of crude proletarian passions and applying itself, under the direction of educated philanthropic bourgeois, ’to the formation of good taste’ and ’the acquisition of good manners’.... As for their Socialist import, this has already been adequately criticised in the Manifesto, Chapter: ’German’, or ’True Socialism’. Whenever the class struggle is thrust aside as a distasteful, ’crude’ manifestation, the only basis still left to Socialism will be a ’true love of mankind’ and empty phrases about ’justice’....

"When people of this kind, from different classes, join the proletarian movement, the first requirement is that they should not bring with them the least remnant of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc, prejudices, but should unreservedly adopt a proletarian outlook.... We cannot possibly cooperate with men who seek to eliminate that class struggle from the movement."15

(If images of News and Litter, the Democratic Left, the various International Marxist Group splinters, Beyond the Fragments, the Socialist Society and Red Pepper have not by now floated into your consciousness, perhaps you should lay aside this magazine, pour yourself another glass of wine, and turn the television on, or better still, go off and dance round the maypole.)

How to build a real Communist movement
But if a Communist organisation is not to be built by recruiting individuals to an isolated group, how are we to go about it?

We saw above that Engels referred Kautsky to "the policy recommended in the Manifesto", which sets it out quite plainly: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own to shape and mould the proletarian movement."

A concrete example of how they set about doing this appears in Engels' description of the First International: "We have people of all sorts in our Association – Communists, Proudhonists, unionists, commercial-unionists, cooperators, Bakuninists, etc. – and even in our General Council we have men of widely differing opinions. The moment the Association were to become a sect it would be finished. Our power lies in the liberality in which the first rule is interpreted, namely, that all men who are admitted aim for the complete emancipation of the working classes."16

This was, in fact, the way Marx and Engels operated throughout their lives, as the following general summary makes clear: "When we returned to Germany, in spring 1848, we joined the Democratic Party as the only possible means of getting the ear of the working class; we were the most advanced wing of that party, but still a wing of it. When Marx founded the International, he drew up the general rules in such a way that all working-class Socialists of that period could join it – Proudhonists, Pierre Lerouxists and even the more advanced section of the English trades unions; and it was only through this latitude that the International became what it was, the means of gradually dissolving and absorbing all these minor sects.... Had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform, where should we be today? I think that all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation."17

And if a general workers' party absorbing such previous formations did not yet exist, the logical conclusion was to build one. Speaking of the United States, Engels wrote: "The first step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers' party.... The masses must have time and opportunity to develop and they can only have the opportunity when they have their own movement – no matter in what form so long as it is only their own movement – in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn wisdom by hurting themselves. The movement in America is in the same position as it was with us before 1848; the really intelligent people there will first of all have the same part to play as that played by the Communist League among the workers' associations before 1848."18

We have already noted that Engels believed that this was the strategy appropriate for this country as well, and that it was one of the original demands of the Socialist League whose split he supported from the SDF. Indeed, he never joined the SDF, which he opposed with great hostility whilst continuing to argue for a general party of Labour.19 And when the ILP was set up in 1893, far from regarding it is a "defeat", as the SWP does today, he described it as "the very party which the old members of the International desired to see formed",20 and took out a party card, noting that "as the mass of the membership is certainly very good, as the centre of gravity lies in the provinces and not in London, the home of cliques, and as the main part of the programme is the same as ours, Aveling was right in joining and accepting a seat on the Executive".21

The ILP went on to play a very positive part in the formation of the Labour Party.

Historical experience has confirmed Marx and Engels' views time and time again. Mass revolutionary parties have never been built by recruitment in ones and twos to a sect, or even by an accumulation of such sects. All the mass parties of the Third International, including the German, the French, and even the Russian itself, came from splits within existing working class institutions; the British, an amalgam of existing sects, never became any more than a sect, and an increasingly rotten one at that.

Obviously, Marx and Engels did not oppose all splits or party conflict as such, as their dealings with Bakunin and others prove. But it is clear that they believed that revolutionaries should remain with the working class, and that it is the sectarians who should split: "Incidentally, old man Hegel said long ago: A party proves itself victorious by splitting and being able to stand the split. The movement of the proletariat necessarily passes through different stages of development; at every stage part of the people get stuck and do not participate in the further advance; and this in itself is sufficient to explain why the ’solidarity of the proletariat’, in fact, everywhere takes the form of different party groupings, which carry on life-and-death feuds with one another, as the Christian sects in the Roman Empire did amidst the worst persecutions."22

There is no evidence that the Marxist pioneers ever taught the main principle on which our modern sects seem to be agreed, that revolutionaries should build their own parties outside the existing parties of the working class. Although it lies strictly outside the limits of this article, it should be remembered that Lenin's party was the majority section of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, that it was he who seconded the amendment accepting the British Labour Party into the Second International, that years later he was arguing in "Left Wing" Communism for the Communist Party to join the Labour Party, and that this remained the official policy of the Communist International during his lifetime. Those who value Trotsky's contribution to Marxism should also remember that he devoted an entire chapter of Where is Britain Going? to arguing that anyone who opposed the affiliation of the trades unions to the Labour Party should be regarded as a scab, and advised his co-thinkers here to join the ILP in 1933, and the Labour Party in 1936.

For those of his adherents who argued for sectarian isolation, he had these blunt words: "The fact that Lenin was not afraid to split from Plekhanov in 1905 and to remain as a small isolated group bears no weight, because the same Lenin remained inside the Social Democracy until 1912 and in 1920 urged the affiliation of the British CP to the Labour Party. While it is necessary for the revolutionary party to maintain its independence at all times, a revolutionary group of a few hundred comrades is not a revolutionary party and can work most effectively at present by opposition to the social patriots within the mass parties. In view of the increasing acuteness of the international situation, it is absolutely essential to be within the mass organisations while there is the possibility of doing revolutionary work within them. Any such sectarian, sterile, and formalistic interpretation of Marxism in the present situation would disgrace an intelligent child of ten."23

Marx and Engels could hardly have put it any better.


1. "4 May [1890] in London", Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.27, Moscow, 1990, p.65. See also his Letter to Bernstein, 29 December 1884, where he describes the SDF as a "swindle".

2. Letter to Bebel, 30 August 1883, Marx and Engels on Britain, Moscow, 1953, p.516.

3. Its linear descendant, the CPGB, was still congratulating itself in March 1921 that its intervention in the Woolwich East by-election had cost Labour the seat, just as the Workers Revolutionary Party was later to do when they did the same to Arthur Latham in a general election in Paddington many years later.

4. Letter to Bebel, 28 October 1885, Marx-Engels Correspondence, London, 1934, p.442.

5. Ibid.

6. "And among them are the Socialist League, which looks down on everything which is not directly revolutionary (which means here in England, as with you, everything which does not limit itself to making phrases and otherwise doing nothing ....", Engels, Letter to Sorge, 19 April 1890, Marx-Engels Correspondence, p.468. On Bax's struggle to commit the Socialist League to supporting the idea of an independent party of labour, see John Cowley, The Victorian Encounter with Marx: A Study of Ernest Belfort Bax, London, 1992, pp.42-4.

7. Letter to Kautsky, 12 August 1892, Marx and Engels on Britain, p.528.

8. Letter to Sorge, 12 May 1894, Marx and Engels on Britain, p.536.

9. Letter to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, The First International and After, Harmondsworth, 1974, p.155.

10. Ibid.

11. Marx and Engels, "The Alleged Splits in the International", March 1872, The First International and After, pp.298-9. See Engels, Letter to Bebel, 15 October 1875, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.45, Moscow, 1991, pp.99-100: "But since the only kind of Socialism that existed before Marx was feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois or utopian, or a combination of various of these elements, it was clear that all these Socialists, all of whom claimed to possess a definite universal panacea of their own, and were completely outside the real workers' movement, regarded every manifestation of the real movement - and that includes coalitions and strikes – as a wrong turning that would deflect the masses from the one redeeming path of the true faith." (The descriptions of sectarian passivity we have quoted from these texts obviously do not refer to the American Spartacists, who were not to appear for another century.)

12. Letter to Bebel, 20 June 1873, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.44, Moscow, 1989, p.512.

13. Ibid, p.514.

14. Letter to Bolte, 23 November 1871, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.44, p.252.

15. Marx and Engels, "Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke and Others", 17-18 September 1879, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.55, pp.403-8.

16. Letter to Cafiero, 1 July 1871, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.44, p.163.

17. Engels, Letter to Wischnewetsky, 27 January 1887, Marx-Engels Correspondence, p.455.

18. Letter to Sorge, 29 November 1886, Marx-Engels Correspondence, p.450. This has, of course, continued to be Marxism's strategic demand for the USA ever since. See Leon Trotsky on the Labor Party in the United States, New York, 1969; "Les Trotskystes américains débattent du Labor Party", in La Vérité, No.622 (new series no.16), November 1995, pp.19-60.

19. "Trades Unions", article written for Shipton's Labour Standard, 28 May-4 June 1881; Letter to Kautsky, 12 August 1892, Marx and Engels on Britain, pp.478, 529.

20. Public speech reported in the Workman's Times, 25 March 1893. See H. Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party, Oxford, 1965, p.123, n.1.

21. Letter to Sorge, 18 January 1893, Marx and Engels on Britain, p.531.

22. Engels, Letter to Bebel, 20 June 1873, Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.44, p.514.

23. Trotsky-Collins Interview, August 1936, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-36, New York, 1977, p.382.