Monday, 1 October 2012

Sectarianism be Praised!

The Left has long been prone to sectarianism, and famously so, due to its fissiparous condition and natural inclination to the narcissism of fine distinctions - to borrow Freud's words. Socialism comes in about a thousand different shades of red. The same can be said of anarchism, communism and feminism. It's probable that the sectarian tendency will never be overcome, partly this is because there has to be disagreement and debate. Dissensus rather than consensus. It's clear that there is a need for discussion over serious issues in practice as well as theory. This is true of morality as well as the organisation of government. In such areas there is a need for a lot more dissensus and not less. The same can be said of the refinement of principle and development of theory itself. This isn't to endorse the destructive strain of sectarianism which tears apart groups and grinds away at mass-popular movements. It's this which has helped to further the Left's decline around the world since the end of the Cold War. We can't blame it all on the CIA, I must concede. But it's important to always insist on a subtle distinction.

It's the problem is the shift to an intolerant variety of sectarianism which is so troubling, and with good reason too. The point at which the disagreement becomes a hindrance to a social movement. To borrow the words of the late Alexander Cockburn "The Left's idea of a meeting is to form a circle, point the guns inward and then fire." This is exactly the kind of sectarianism that the majority of people find problematic. It can drive a wedge right into a movement, first causing friction and then leading to schismatic bursts that threaten the whole thrust of the organised efforts. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the successes of a movement in its commitment to a cause often in turn produce greater unity and solidarity. The sectarian elements are usually marginalised in this way, as it becomes more important to unify around a cause which is more important than our petty differences of theory. The victories of a movement are self-propelling in this way. This could go against Gramscian sequential schemas about the primacy of politics, in that the material conditions may come before the political - likewise, theory very often struggles to keep up with practice.

Sadly it's also true that the destructive sectarian streak of the Left is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Very often the Left is in a state of paralysis thanks to its own bitter squabbles and petty infighting, which would embarrass the Church of England - it truly does come down to a narcissism of fine distinctions! The inability of some to build alliances within the Left has even been matched by those who find it easier to coalesce with the Right. Alexander Cockburn received no end of criticism for consorting with Pat Buchanan over the Iraq war, yet it was a pragmatic move of a committed anti-imperialist. Though it's worth saying that the left-wing worry of a descent into a state of affairs where we take the side of anyone who is critical of US foreign policy is not an confused one. Many conservatives saw Fascism as a "lesser evil" to socialism, even libertarians thought Mussolini was a "moderate" who had saved private property from the red plague. No such calculation would go uncriticised on the Left. One of the reasons why the Right is not as sectarian, and not in the same way, as the Left is that leftists are better than rightists. It's about questions of action.

The rigorous assessment of principle and practice among leftists is not a reason for despair in every instance. The Left ought to be sectarian in this sense, in its commitment to outmatch liberals and conservatives when it comes to democracy, equality and liberty, as well as art, culture and even tradition. This requires a certain refinement and maintenance of principle. It is often overlooked that the conservative claim to a monopoly over culture and tradition is as ludicrous as the suggestion of a liberal monopoly over freedom. Notably it was Leon Trotsky who said "We Marxists have always lived in tradition." He wasn't speaking as a conservative, because there is an alternative conception of tradition to be found in radicalism. It is a cultural body which is constantly remade, as well as opening itself to the participation of ordinary people. At the same time it's not just conservatives who want to preserve the great canon of literature, whereas radicals are about accessibility and dissensus. But it's a fetishistic tendency of conservatives to take something as good just because it stood the test of time. Quality control is something the Left does better.

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