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Cults and Sects are a Menace: An Answer to Sean Matgamna

Dave Spencer

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.3, 1995

SEAN MATGAMNA wrote a piece "The Class Struggle is the Decisive Thing" in Workers’ Liberty (February 1995) attacking New Interventions among other Left journals [reproduced below, as an Appendix – ed]. It is in the form of a rant and is interesting only insofar as it reveals the thinking of a defender of sects. He starts off by recognising that the ideas of socialism are under attack, noting the implosion of Stalinism and the flight from socialism of social democracy. He fails to mention the crisis on the Far Left among the self-proclaimed parties, internationals and leagues of one sort or another; apparently they are immune to events affecting lesser mortals.

He says that the collapse of Stalinism makes the mass rebirth of genuine socialism possible – objectively. How quickly this comes about "depends on us". Who is this "us"? He doesn’t say, so I suppose he must mean his own organisation, the AWL; unless Sean is using the royal "we"! What a responsibility, the saviours of the world, the Jehovah Witnesses of the Left. Nobody else is any good – nobody else has anything to say or to contribute – least of all the working class except as foot soldiers for the vanguard. His advice is to go to the working class and to the working class movement – not to learn anything, not to listen, not to engage in dialogue, but "to organise it, to reorganise it, to plant the seeds of unfalsified socialism". And where is this "unfalsified socialism" to come from? From above, from the vanguard, from the AWL, from the head of Sean Matgamna; these are the keepers of the Holy Grail, the inventors of the magic ingredient X that will put everything right. There is no dialectical process here, no room for discussion, the truth already exists; it is philosophical idealism pure and simple, not Marxism, not dialectical materialism.

At this point when the sympathetic reader might want to know precisely and practically how to carry out these important tasks in the working class, given the title of the piece, Sean indulges himself in an exasperated attack on people around various Left journals in the UK. Instead of giving us the "rigorous, engaged articles" he so desires from others, he pays attention to people who according to him are irrelevant to the class struggle. What sort of nonsense is this? The leader of an organisation on which the mass rebirth of socialism internationally depends, who no doubt is up to his eyeballs in class struggle himself, takes time out to attack a few pygmies on the fringes. Why bother? But then the rules Sean wishes to apply to others of course do not apply to himself. He complains that we "study dead individuals once prominent in the movement"; yet over one quarter of his article is composed of quotations from Trotsky; plus a photograph of Trotsky just to underline the point; all ripped from context naturally. He complains that we are obsessed with word processing; no doubt he gets others to do his for him. Worse still, according to him, "No one’s going to tell them what to do!" Well, when has anybody ever told Sean Matgamna what to do? Not even the constitution and democratic decisions of his own organisation. What he means is that we refuse any more to obey arbitrary diktats of self-appointed whip-masters like Gerry Healy, Tony Cliff, Peter Taaffe and if the cap fits, Sean Matgamna. Absolutely right; we have reacted against the bureaucratic centralism and sectarianism of all the British Left groups.

For Sean this attitude represents a recoiling against group discipline and it doesn’t matter to him which group; belonging to any old group is better than belonging to no group at all. He advocates the virtues of "commitment, selflessness, discipline" which he says we ex-or non-members do not have. Excellent qualities these, particularly for monastic life, the armed forces and membership of a cult. One group he doesn’t mention in his catalogue is the WRP whose members showed exactly those qualities he admires. Yet thousands of excellent comrades were personally and politically destroyed by the WRP and left the organisation blaming themselves in exactly Sean’s terms, giving themselves 10 guilt-ridden lashes every day and paying conscience money for life. And at the end of the day Healy was shown to be a rapist and a thug. How dare Sean Matgamna blame ex-members for recoiling against the "discipline" of the WRP and of Healy? And to equate this type of party worship and fanaticism with Bolshevism is a grotesque caricature.

The final virtues of belonging to a group, any group, we are all supposed to recoil against according to Matganma are "intellectual rigour and strict political book-keeping". This is a truly breathtaking claim, firstly that these qualities actually exist in Left Groups and secondly that members react against them. I would like to see or hear just one piece of evidence for this statement. In 30 years on the Left, I have experienced most of the Left Groups in Britain and "intellectual rigour and strict political book-keeping" are not features I have noticed in any of them; in fact quite the contrary. The SWP doesn’t even allow factions; internal discussion bulletins are rare and usually reserved for when the leadership wants to sound off at the members, when miraculously time and resources are found to produce them, usually in great numbers. I would say bureaucratic witchhunts, personal vendettas and Machiavellian manoeuvres are more the order of the day. The internal regimes of these groups make the Labour Party, the bourgeois courts and even the local psychiatric ward look enlightened. And all of this is done in the name of Lenin, Trotsky and Bolshevism with the authoritative backing of the October Revolution. It’s all a charade and it needs exposing as such, along with Stalinism, if there is to be a rebirth of socialism.

Sean Matgamna has missed the point about the proliferation of discussion groups and journals. These groups are a relatively honest response to the crisis of socialism created by the collapse of Stalinism. the betrayals of social democracy and the failure of the Left Groups. They are a recognition that all is not as it once seemed to be, that many questions have to be re-opened for discussion, that the rebirth of genuine socialism can only come about through open-minded dialogue and study in the course of United Front action. In contrast Sean talks of "unfalsified socialism" as though these ideas were well-known, obvious, immutable for all time, available on tap at the AWL. It’s as though nothing extraordinary and shocking has occurred in the former Stalinist states, as though events have merely confirmed what the Left Groups had been saying all along; business as usual, double the sales of the paper

Where are the signs of "intellectual rigour and strict political book-keeping" in the Left Groups Sean so vociferously defends? They are entirely absent. And it is partly because of the need for some accounting, not a recoiling against it that these new groups have been formed. We need to understand what has happened to understand what is happening; and unfortunately there are no blueprints and no holy scripts. Sean’s "digging out an article Leon Trotsky wrote in 1932" is just not good enough, particularly when he uses it as an authoritative text not as a key to understanding. He quotes Trotsky as saying, "The study of the past is in the last analysis justified by this, that it helps one to orient oneself in the present." Exactly. I would argue that the present state of socialism and the working class movement is one of confusion. Only a thorough study of the past and open-minded dialogue in relating the lessons to action today can overcome this and develop genuine socialism. Sean is claiming that the discussion groups and journals study history and theory in the abstract, separating us from revolutionary practice. They are not necessary because the theory is already worked out by the existing Left Groups and all that is required is to get stuck into the practice with "commitment, selflessness and discipline". I think this view is based on ignorance and arrogance.

Sean says, "I know, or once knew, quite a few of the individuals in this spectrum." Of course this knowledge is mutual and reciprocal! Quite a few of us know Sean Matgamna. For this reason I have a few misgivings about replying to Sean’s article which I would like to share. My first reaction to reading it was, "What’s he up to?" In other words, you never know whether one of Sean’s articles is a genuine expression of opinion or a deliberate polemic with some hidden agenda. So if you are stung to reply, you may have fallen into the trap. It reminds me of when I was a County Councillor; I came across councillors who deliberately never told the truth, who were always involved in some manipulative power game or other, who delighted in stitching people up. Left groups are a bit like that and it is justified on the "Leninist" basis that state power is the goal, the vanguard will show the way and any tactic is permissible to the leadership of the vanguard to that end. Some have compared these ideas and methods to Stalinism, but actually I would argue they are very much what we are used to in the average capitalist institution in our workplaces; it is what constitutes human relations under capitalism. At the risk of appearing naive or wimpish, I think we have to break with this type of Machiavellian politics. Rigging ballots, packing meetings, silencing opponents, ignoring democratic decisions, setting up front organisations; it’s not the way forward.

Of course I am not suggesting that Sean Matgamna has committed all the evils mentioned above, but his article does represent some of the worst aspects and rhetoric of the conceited vanguardism of the British Left Groups and shows why they are so unsuccessful. There is a case for being anti-bureaucratic and anti-sectarian in the same way as being anti-racist and anti-sexist, for bureaucracy and sectarianism are endemic on the Left and are a blockage to working class involvement, particularly to youth and to women. This would mean paying some attention to the internal regimes of the Left Groups and not staying silent.

June 1995

PS. Just a note about the Dead Trots Society in Coventry that Sean talks about with such scorn. It was a joke suggestion made while we were discussing a name for our local group. We decided rather boringly on Coventry Marxist Forum. This reminds me of the days of Rank and File papers in the 1970s where names had to be found. A classic suggestion was "Red Bun" for the Bakers’ Union R&F paper. It wasn’t chosen, pity really, but the story was often told. It is interesting that Sean did not mention "a sense of humour" in his list of virtues needed by the dedicated Left Group member; though perhaps he would see "tittle-tattle" as more appropriate.


The Class Struggle is the Decisive Thing

Sean Matgamna

"It is necessary to recall that Marxism not only interprets the world but also teaches how to change it. The will is the motor force in the domain of knowledge too. The moment Marxism loses its will to transform in a revolutionary way political reality, at that moment it loses the ability to correctly understand political reality. A Marxist who, for one secondary consideration or another, does not draw his conclusions to the end betrays Marxism." Leon Trotsky

THE STATE of the world as we rush towards the 21st century testifies to the truth that socialism is not only a good idea, but a stark necessity for humankind. Yet, the ideas of socialism are everywhere under attack. They are at the nadir of influence and prestige. Socialism is reduced to a vague word. Most people haven’t a clue what real socialism is about or what it would look like. Worse. The credibility of socialism is buried under the debris of Stalinism, that savage and malign pseudo-socialism. Many who accepted Stalinism at its own Big Lie evaluation, now say that Stalinism was "the socialism that failed". It is the conventional wisdom.

The reformist counterfeit of socialism is also in a bad way. In Britain, the best fruits of reform socialism, the Health Service and the Welfare State, are in ruins after 15 years of sustained Tory social war against the working class. The labour movement itself has been ravaged: it bears the scars and mutilations of a decade and a half of defeat, and of structural changes in industry forced through on the bosses’ terms in conditions of working-class weakness and defeat.

And yet despite all that, the collapse of Stalinism has, objectively, opened the road for a mass rebirth of genuine socialism. How quickly it comes depends on us. What can we do?

Nothing is more obvious than that the duty of socialists – those who are worth anything – now is to go to the working class and into the working-class movement to organise and reorganise it and to plant the seeds of unfalsified socialism once more especially amongst the youth. Yet this work is scarcely being done.

The space that should he occupied by serious Marxist socialists doing this work is filled instead by a raucous tribe of middle class semi-anarchists impotently shouting about about "revolution". A socialism that bases itself on the working class and on working-class immediate concerns and, while advocating revolutionary socialist politics and perspectives, avoids becoming a toy-town Bolshevik sect – that today is the property of only a minority of the socialists. Because that is so, great objective possibilities for socialist renewal are being let go by unfructified.

It is against this background that one observes a strange phenomenon on the British left – the mushrooming of a sizeable number of sects and chapels, and of socialist journals and study groups, concerned not immediately with the class struggle or the tasks described above but with clearing some of the Stalinist spittle, blood and encrusted mud off the face of genuine socialism, so that it is again visible to the untutored eye. They are concerned primarily with the study of aspects of the history of our movement, or with past great struggles, or with dead individuals once prominent in the movement, or with their own experiences in one or other of the bigger "Trotskyist" organisations!

Much of their activity is that of a sort of fringe academia, or pseudo-academia. Some of it overlaps with official academia, forming a sort of "ectoplasmic pregnancy" between academia and politics. Even when some of these individuals are in the trade unions or the Labour Party, their political concerns tend to have more the character of a hobby, than that of people Trotsky would have recognised as revolutionary militants.

Perspectives and the discipline incumbent on people determined to do something in the working class – these they eschew. They accept no discipline or activity greater than the discipline and "activity" of their circle of friends. People come together to kibbitz and grouse and reminisce and maybe to publish something, who could not stay together five minutes if they tried to do political work that required them to define their politics. They are tolerant and uncritical of each other to a fault – indeed, beyond a fault. They tend to be people who have recoiled from an existing organisation like the SWP or Militant or AWL and not to have drawn their recoil out to any political conclusion beyond negativism. Often they have recoiled against things which are necessary to any serious organisation dedicated to the great cause of working-class emancipation – commitment, selflessness, discipline, intellectual rigour, strict political book-keeping. No one’s going to tell them what to do.

These groupuscules sometimes have names, the most memorable of which was a group in one Midlands town called "The Dead Trots Society" (after the movie, The Dead Poets Society). Most are far less self-knowing.

I know, or once knew, quite a few of the individuals in this spectrum. To tell the truth, what they are doing now is the best thing some of them could do for socialism short of leaving people less subjecin e than themselves to get on with it. Others are capable of better things.

Above, so to speak, those groups are academic and semi-academic journals with loose groups around them, which sometimes call conferences – Critique, Red Pepper, Revolutionary History, New Interventions, etc. You can get the most weird and wonderful discussions – so I’m told – in a Critique conference! Recently, for example, they had a learned discussion about the Welfare State: should socialists defend it? After all, wasn’t it the wrong model? So bureaucratic! Many of the people there seemed to think it funny that Workers’ Liberty supporters should want to defend the Welfare State.

As a rule, these individuals and groupuscules tend to be sectarian – either in the sense of ultra-leftism, dismissing the Labour Party and the unions and refusing to work in them – or, more commonly, in the basic sense of just tilling their own patch of ground without concern with broader perspectives or with the fundamental work of socialists described above.

All of them are more or less cut adrift from the disciplines, rhythms and concerns of the class struggle: their business is prattle and word processing, not practice. This is the single most arresting thing about the citizens of these atolls and islands jutting up in the flood tide of anti-socialist reaction: Marxist to a snobbery, they do not accept any obligation on them- selves to go to work and test their ideas in "revolutionary practice" in the labour movement, and in the working class.

Devotees of the memory of this or that revolutionary, and fascinated by old factional struggles – whose protagonists thought they were quarrelling over issues of consequence in the class struggle – they are largely uninterested in integrating themselves in the class struggle now. They don’t even accept that the class struggle – at however low a level it may exist – should define their "political" activity, still less that they should organise their lives around it.

"Revolutionary tradition" for them is books and articles and genning up about the past, not something alive – something that can only be kept alive and growing by being developed and elaborated in revolutionary practice here and now. Thus they dismiss the central tenet that separates Marxism – the only real Marxism – from academia or academic sociology: practice, the centrality of the class struggle, the revolutionary Marxist determination to learn from experience and bring it to conclusions that can he used by our class.

Some tend to console themselves with smug and idiotic – but essentially self-exposing – little half truths, like that contained in the rhetorical question: was Marx theorising or "practising" when he wrote Capital? Me, I’d revise my opinion of some of these people for a rigorous "engaged" article or two. Even David Ryazanov did not disdain the class struggle!

Not everything they do is useless. Useful articles are sometimes produced; Revolutionary History is, on the whole, a worthwhile publication; so sometimes is Critique. But in the present climate of working class defeat and socialist retreat into sectarianism they are helping to shape a whole sub-culture in which the central Marxist commitment to the class struggle and to practical work for socialism is gone, as is the proper Marxist sense of shame at its absence.

Thinking of this strange, sectarian pseudo-academia that is mushrooming in the Tory-blitzed bomb sites of the labour movement, I dug out an article Leon Trotskv wrote in 1932 in the form of an open letter to the American journalist V.F. Calverton. Some of it is quoted at the beginning of this piece. Here is more of this important article.

"Proletarian politics has a great theoretical tradition and that is one of the sources of its power. A trained Marxist studies the differences between Engels and Lassalle with regard to the European war of 1859. This is necessary. But if he is not a pedant of Marxist historiography, not a bookworm, but a proletarian revolutionist, it is a thousand times more important and urgent for him to elaborate for himself an independent judgement about the revolutionary strategy in China from 1925 to 1932. It was precisely on that question that the struggle within Bolshevism sharpened for the first time to the point of split....

It is very useful to study, let us say, the old differences among Russian Marxists on the character of the future Russian revolution; a study, naturally, from the original sources and not from the ignorant and unconscionable compilations of the epigones. But it is far more important to elaborate for oneself a clear understanding of the theory and practice of the Anglo-Russian Committee, of the "third period", of "social fascism", of the "democratic dictatorship" in Spain, and the policy of the united front. The study of the past is in the last analysis justified by this, that it helps one to orient oneself in the present.

It is impermissible for a Marxist theoretician to pass by the congresses of the First international. But a thousand times more urgent is the study of the living differences over the Amsterdam "anti-war" congress of l932.... Is there today a subject more important for a revolutionist, more gripping, more burning, than the struggle and the fate of the German proletariat? Is it possible, on the other hand, to define one’s attitude to the problems of the German revolution while passing by the differences in the camp of German and international communism? A revolutionist who has no opinion on the policies of Stalin-Thaelmann is not a Marxist. A Marxist who has an opinion but remains silent is not a revolutionist.

It is not enough to preach the benefits of technology; it is necessary to build bridges. How would a young doctor be judged who, instead of practising as an intern, would be satisfied with reading biographies of great surgeons of the past? What would Marx have said about a theory which, instead of deepening revolutionary practice, serves to separate one from it? Most probably he would repeat his sarcastic statement: ‘No, I am not a Marxist’."