MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Sectarianism and Opportunism

Sectarianism and Opportunism are the twin errors which may befall any organisation formed in pursuit of some principle.

The Sectarian emphasises the absolute truth of its principle over any other, finds in every small disagreement the seeds of fundamental difference, see the most deadly foe in the closest rival, puts purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refuses to compromise or modify their aims and is proud of being against the stream. Simply put, sectarianism is the breakdown of solidarity.

The Opportunist is always ready to adapt its principles to circumstances, minimises the significance of internal disagreements, treats even opponents as "the lesser evil", puts tactical advantage ahead of being true to its principles, is too ready to make compromises and is all too ready to follow the current of the stream.

Not suprisingly, the sectarian or opportunist invariably repudiates being labeled as such, and instead reverses the claim. Meanwhile, these labels are all too easily thrown against minority positions in the attempt to invalidate their opinions as "anti-party", simply because they are different and challenging.

Naturally, real differences exist within groups and between different organisations. When these are fundamental differences, opposition and conflict is to be expected when a common course is attempted. The trouble with sectarianism is that it behaves as if fundamental differences exist when they do not; while opportunism actively ignores real differences. Thus, when for example Anarchists and Socialists attempt a common action, one can expect some areas of conflict.

Some confusion arises becuse the very nature of a Communist is to support the working class as a whole, which includes parties, unions, organisations, etc. Such a purpose is an arduous one and a fine line is sometimes walked between helping increase class consciouness and the sectarian slide of dictating to workers that their interests are not workers interests! Thus, mutual respect and thorough going solidarity are two steadfast principles of real Communists.

Sectarianism and Opportunism exist in all things; but they are no more dominate in the working class movement than they are in religious organisations or capitlist governments. In the United States for example, the Republican and Democratic parties have been in deeply sectarian battles over how best to rule a capitalist government for over 100 years. While they see one another as fundamentally in opposition (though we clearly know that they are not), they do have the tolerance to the extent that they recognize the need for one another in order for their government to survive. Thus, to irradicate sectarianism is impossible (an attempt we saw in the Soviet Union, accomplished with the most brutal of results), but to control it within certain boundaries can be a source of great strength.

Every form of doctrinaire fanaticism, every attempt to turn Marxism into an unalterable dogma is contrary to Marxist thought, which recognizes no absolute truth but only relative truth. This is not scepticism, which denies the very possibility of absolute perception of the world, but only a recognition of the limitations of our perception. All the truths which we recognize are not truths in themselves, independent of time and place, but truths only as far as we are concerned, valid only for us, for our time, for the space in which we live. Every such truth must govern our actions until more advanced perception has exposed and removed the bit of error residing in the previously accepted truth.

Karl Kautsky
Marxism and Bolshevism – Democracy and Dictatorship

Further Reading: Lenin's Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, and Trotsky's Germany: What's Next.



Self-consciousness is one's awareness of being separate from the objective world.

Self-consciousness is a concept which figures very prominently in Hegel's philosophy and his view is the subject of particularly damning criticism in Marx's 1844 Critique of Hegel's Philosophy in General where he says that the Young Hegelians talk about “self-consciousness” as if it were something that existed independently of human beings. It is also central to those Hegelian and Marxist trends, particularly in France, which begin from Kojève's reading of Hegel's Master-Slave Dialectic in the Phenomenology.

Marxist anthropology and psychology is concerned with how self-consciousness emerges through people's discovering their own powers in Nature, such as in the making of tools – material objects which embody human powers. Prior to self-consciousness, people are not aware of Nature as something existing objectively; a child, for instance, has only sensuous consciousness, but is not aware of the things causing their experiences having an independent existence. The growth of awareness of the objectivity of the world grows hand-in-hand with Self-consciousness.

In regard to social processes, Self-consciousness marks the stage of development at which a movement is aware of itself in opposition to the existing conditions. For example, working-class consciousness develops only as workers create organisations which express socialist ideals against the bourgeois conditions which constitute the conditions of existence of wage-workers.

Further Reading: Marx's Critique of Hegel's Philosophy in General.



Hegel frequently refers to a concept being “Self-identical” or “equal to itself”. By this he means that the concept is lacking in any internal contradiction and is therefore abstract and motionless and generally isolated from connection with other things. Science tells us today that such an idea is impossible. For example, a body of water in which the temperature has become equal throughout (something which is impossible in reality) will have no convection currents within it; a society with no internal contradictions would be static and lifeless, etc., etc. Since all things are in motion and occupy different places in space/time, "self-identical" is impossible.

Further Reading: Identity in the Doctrine of Essence and see also the “Law of Identity”.



“Semblance” is a synonym for Illusory Being, an alternative translation of the German Schein or “Show".


Separate Path theory

Created by the Russian Narodniks in the 1860s, and later followed by the Peoples Will and Socialist-Revolutionaries, this theory stipulated that Russia could leap from fuedalism to Socialism without need for capitalism. Accordingly, the peasantry was Russia's revoultionary class.



Semiology is the study of signs and signalling.

The term “semiology” was first used by John Locke, and Hegel made some important observations on signs, but semiology only became the object of study with the US logician and founder of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, and the Swiss founder of modern bourgeois linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure. The Marxist study of words and sign-making activity was initiate by Lev Vygotsky.

Hegel: In categorising signs, Hegel made the distinction between representation, which senuously copied the thing, symbol, which represents the thing by its own form, but conventionally, as is the case with hieroglyphics and Chinese characters, as opposed to a sign which has lost all sensuous representation of the object and indicates the object only as part of language. See Hegel’s Psychology.

Peirce: “Firstly, there are likenesses, or icons; which serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them. Secondly, there are indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted, or a vocative exclamation, ... Thirdly, there are symbols, or general signs, which have become associated with their meanings by usage. Such are most words, and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries.” [What is a Sign?]

Peirce also emphasised the meaning of signs in their association with the practical activity oriented towards the object indicated by the sign. See How to Make our Ideas Clear.

Saussure: In breaking from the positivist approach to linguistics of his times, Saussure held that words and other language elements (signifiers) bore no sensual or formal connection with the things indicated (signified) and indicated only by means of the structural role of the word within the whole language, and it was to this structure that attention must be directed; through language people expressed the structure of their reality. Saussure also introduced the distinction between the formal langue and the actual utterances made in parole. See Lectures in General Linguistics.

Vygotsky: Vygotsky’s approach is to consider signs in connection with their ontogenesis (in the acquisition of language by an individual) and phylogenesis (in the historical development of a culture) as part of practical activity.

The most primitive sign is a gesture, which is a curtailed collaborative action, and the first vocalisations appear as enhanced gestures. The gestures get detached from the action and used independently. The external activity which begins as communicative action then becomes ego-centric and used for coordinating the subject’s own activity. The external activity is then internalised as inner speech (ultimately the subject does not even require inner speech to coordinate the same activity). Subsequently, words are then used the organise both thinking and objective practical or social activity and the written word can make its appearance. See Thinking and Speaking]

Many postmodern theorists part company with all the above in their understanding of semiotics in insisting on semiotics being detached from the study of the practical activity coordinated with signs.



See Goods and Services



The term sexism originated in the US in 1968 as a parallel with racism and rapidly entered general currency.

Further Reading: Women and Marxism Archive; Kate Millett's Theory of Sexual Politics (1969), Shulasmith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex (1970).