One of our readers, “Julius Ebola,” offered these thoughts in a recent comments thread. I think these are points that are well worth considering. Thoughts on some of these ideas anyone?
“Sectarianism and opportunism are useful as general political concepts, and that seems to be how Rothbard understood them. This did not save the Libertarian party from becoming a textbook example of sectarianism, or the Cato institute from becoming a textbook example of opportunism, unfortunately.
Despite the widespread victory of at least some Libertarian ideas, the party remains completely hopeless as a political vehicle, and the idea of it ever coming into real power is absurd. In the popular mind it is synonymous with half-baked cranks, racist idiots, UFO believers, and conspiracy theorists. Not even Libertarians take it seriously.
Cato has more prestige and influence, but only so long as it focuses on Republican-friendly issues (mainly lower taxes for the ruling class, of course). At best it is a reformist organization that has safely nested itself within the ecosystem of think-tanks and special interest groups that lobby the state. Expecting anything revolutionary from it is just as absurd.
(Let us not forget how many Cato and Reason type “libertarians” supported the Bush administration and the war with Iraq, until it became unfashionable.)
Beyond general concepts, the terms sectarianism and opportunism are also very specific terms of art in the most sophisticated and effective revolutionary theory ever developed, and you are correct that this theory was central to Communism becoming the most dangerous revolutionary movement in human history.
The Bolsheviks had a once proud weapon that has become encrusted with the barnacles of a century of reaction after it was submerged in a river of blood. Do not mistake the cargo cults and academics for the old wolf. He soaked two thirds of the world in blood.
I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine how this theory might be modified for anarchist purposes, but this presents a whole series of extremely difficult problems in both theory and practice. Pan-anarchism is in want of a theory of political conflict. An examination of Bolshevism is a good place to start, as an example of how the fundamental problems that face any revolutionary movement were successfully solved.
(This is not an argument for or against Leninism. I am a card carrying member of the Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Dead Horses, and I have no interest at all in such an argument. That is not to say that I have no position.)
Sectarianism and opportunism are words that come with a thick crust of slander that has accumulated during the last 100 years of their use as two of the Communist’s favorite slurs. In the common use today among the surviving cargo cults, the meaning is thus:
Everyone to the left of me is a sectarian; everyone to the right of me is an opportunist.
This obscures a strategic lesson of the first order that is one of Lenin’s most important contributions to revolutionary theory.
Sectarianism and opportunism are not moral qualities or psychological tendencies; they are not types of politics or species of ideologies. They are not even fixed political positions.
They are strategic traps on the political battlefield that will destroy a revolutionary movement that falls into them.
You can fall into these traps, as one can be outflanked or encircled on a battlefield, against your own intentions and due to circumstances beyond your control. As on the battlefield, there is no set-piece solution that will protect against them.
Sectarianism and opportunism are the opposite polarities of revolutionary conflict. A revolutionary movement must find ways to navigate between them because it must approach both without falling into either.
In order to continue to live, a revolutionary movement at minimum must have:
A revolutionary direction
Independence of action
Access to the mass
When a movement loses its independence or its direction, it will die as a revolutionary movement. When this happens, as it usually does, in search of power or access, this is Opportunism.
The position of the AFL-CIO today is an example. It has power and access, but it has been so hollowed out and infested with DNC apparatchiks that it has zero independence and whatever revolutionary direction the American labor movement ever had is, of course, ancient history. The corpse has been kept around as a tool of the DNC, but as we saw with NAFTA and Obama care, it can no longer even protect its own interests. Its position is so desperate that the only hope it has of survival is that it can steal enough money from its workers so as to be valuable enough to the democrats that they don’t finally just sell it out to the corporations completely and ban government unions. (Except for the pig unions, of course.)
Power without the independence to use it is worse than nothing.
When a movement is cut off from all access to the mass or from any hope of power, it will die as a revolutionary movement. When this happens, as it usually does, in search of independence or revolutionary direction, this is Sectarianism.
The position of the Portland IWW is an example. They still have all of their empty revolutionary rhetoric, and are independent enough to chart their own course, but they have zero power of any significance and their ability to even communicate with, much less organize, any large number of workers is also zero. The corpse lives on as a vegan coffee shop for anarchist hipsters, but the revolutionary potential is as dead as big bill. (We have whole town full of dangerous hobos, too.)
Revolutionary words without the power to act are nothing more than stupid primate noises.
Lenin crystallized this lesson in the context of the left and right of his era. When universalizing this lesson I find it more useful to think in terms of the center and the fringe. Revolutions must come from the fringe or they wouldn’t be revolutions. They must storm the center without becoming of it or they are nothing more than coups. During the long conflict to organize the mass that will be the main vehicle of the revolution they must navigate a course between the center (opportunism) and the fringe (sectarianism) that leads to access to the mass and to power without losing their independence of action or there revolutionary direction.
This does not mean taking “moderate” positions. It is extremely difficult in actual practice and requires the kind of radical creativity, operational excellence, and political acumen that the left today can only observe in its enemies or read about in old books.
The revolutionary direction is what Maoists call the line of march. It is not just the ultimate goal but also the path to that goal and the act of walking that path. It is a deeply shared vision that binds the revolutionaries together and the burning torch of revolutionary hatred that drives them forth to attempt and sometimes achieve the impossible. It is the source of all solidarity and discipline, all energy and courage, all sacrifice and valor.
Independence of action means at minimum the freedom to operate in pursuit of the revolutionary direction under your own command. It also includes the capacity to operate. A movement that sets up a printing press or gains the ability to organize in a factory has added to its independence by developing new abilities it did not have before. Conversely, a movement that has had its press confiscated or its organizers blacklisted has lost part of its independence. At the same time possession of a printing press or a cadre of talented organizers will benefit you nothing if you lose the freedom to use them.
This was Lenin’s crown jewel. He was willing to do anything to obtain it. He was willing to do anything to keep it. Losing it means liquidation and the end of the movement.
Access to the mass means at minimum to have contact with the mass and the ability to communicate with and organize it. Its most crucial aspect is the relationship of the movement to the mass. The fate of the entire project hangs on this balance. A movement that has so alienated the mass that it has become hated, or untrusted, or ignored, has lost its access just as surely as if it had been physically barred from it.
This is why legitimacy is such a critical issue for a revolutionary movement, and why losing it means certain death.
The definition of the mass is crucial, and it will change over time. In the beginning a movement must focus on recruiting a core of cadre, and the social group they are being drawn from is the mass. Once the cadre has been formed it then turns its eyes on the most radical part of the community it seeks to organize and this becomes the mass. As the targeted mass changes, so do the nature of the dangers of Sectarianism and Opportunism.
The communist understanding of power was one of the Bolsheviks’ most radical innovations. Power is anything that can be of use to the revolutionary conflict. Anything. It can range from participation in a small reading circle to control of a powerful union, from the ability to influence an election with articles in a press to the possession of a tank army.
Without power you have no way to fight. Power isn’t just the end; it is the means to the end.
With all of these concepts, context is absolutely critical as the dynamic correlation of forces in the struggle is constantly changing, as is the targeted mass. Today the mass is a small group of radical intellectuals, tomorrow it is the workers at temporary agency in Ferguson. In five years it is all the prisoners in the Illinois prison system. Today your only form of power is a baseball bat you are going to take to the car of the racist rat manager of the temp agency as an act of provocation to destabilize his relationship with the workers, in a year it will be a wildcat union that shuts the temp agency down, in five years it will be a general strike in the prison system. What was opportunism today may be sectarianism tomorrow. These are strategic dangers relative to the entire conflict, not fixed points or specific positions. The line you use to organize the radical intellectuals will not be the same one you use to organize the temps. The line you use to organize the local churches against the prison system will not be the same line you use to organize the people within it. This is an art, not a science, and it is hard.
All of these concepts are deeply interconnected when specifically applied: A printing press gives you the independence to publish what you want without censure and is also a line of communication with the mass. Once you have enough legitimacy it can become a form of power. The temporary worker wildcat union is a target mass, a form of power and a critical line of communication to the larger mass within the prison system. The general strike within the prison system is direct blow to the enemy, an exercise of power and an act of communication with every prisoner in the country, as well as an act of communication with potential cadre.”