Mary Scully

Marxism, Centrism, and Sectarianism

“The task at present is to prepare the cadres of Leninist youth, to raise them to the level of the tasks of our epoch. In this sphere, the requirements are special theoretical clarity, ideological honesty, and an irreconcilability to opportunism and diplomacy.”

—Leon Trotsky

The present fusion discussion within the FIT will be an important step in establishing the principles and methods of revolutionary regroupment and in developing a clear and concrete approach to the problems of politics in America today. What’s involved here in the last analysis is the question of the correct policy toward centrist and sectarian tendencies in the workers movement and the very heart of that discussion is a programmatic one.

As yet the basic principles governing fusion remain unclear.

Nevertheless, elaborate preparations are being made for the organizational forms to accomplish it. All discussion of the programmatic problems is shrugged off with assurances that such agreement exists despite considerable proof to the contrary. As a result, the FIT is now negotiating for unity with two organizations moving in opposing directions from each other and with programs contradicting our own. In addition, after seven years of trying to establish the primacy of a scientific Marxist program and tile necessity of Leninism,’ comrades are now attempting to substitute diplomacy, horse-trading, and Machiavellian maneuvers as the strategy for building a revolutionary party.

Fusion poses all the fundamental questions of revolutionary policy (theory, strategy, tactics, and organization) and it is our duty to spell out the problems and relevant facts in detail. It is our duty to spell out the principles of fusion as well as principled methods to accomplish it.

Marxism & Centrism

Comrade Bloom’s latest contribution entitled “Why we need a more aggressive policy regarding unity of U.S. Fourth Internationalists”is presented not in the Marxist manner, i.e., to clarify all the existing tendencies and problems, but in the centrist manner of minimizing and blurring all the differences between the FIT and Solidarity in order to strengthen the case for fusion.

Comrade Bloom’s contribution is a document so dismissive of program and principle, so diligent in its evasion of the most essential questions that I consider it an exposition of the politics of centrist combination. The method of this document is shared by Comrade Onasch and others.

I’ve always considered Bloom and Onasch to be pretty sharp and knowledgeable but both argue that there are no adequate historical analogies to guide us in our discussions with Solidarity. What an astonishing assertion after 150 years of the struggle of tendencies within the working class! My dear comrades, in all of human history there is no social movement in any sphere of human activity that has more experience with fusions and splits than the revolutionary Marxist movement. You might say “we wrote the book". Sectarians and centrists have been a central and persistent part of that experience and have provided no end of theoretical insights to the process of building the revolutionary movement. Is it really possible you are unfamiliar with this experience and tradition, which takes up so much of the polemics of our movement, stretching back beyond Marx and Engels?

This ignoring of tradition more than explains how Comrade Bloom came up with such a novel scheme as a “partial fusion".

He might be concocting something new here and I’d give my eyeteeth to hear a precise description of what it is and how it would work. However, I suspect that substantive differences between partial fusion and centrist combination do not exist.

Bloom and Onasch make it clear that they are not proposing an entry tactic. This reluctance is not because the FIC comrades probably have read their Marxist history and would be forewarned against it. Rather it is because an entry tactic would be too decisive, it would require conflict, clarity, program, definite limits, and a fight for the program of Trotskyism. But Solidarity doesn’t want to hear that stuff so Bloom counsels a diplomatic policy. How does he describe it? “We favor comradely discussion, not an adversarial relationship.”We have to handle this fusion (so-called) “in a way that is not inherently in conflict.”And again: “Solidarity has explicitly rejected a dialogue with us which includes certain questions. If we really want to talk with them, then we have to try to find a mutually agreeable basis on which to begin. How demure! How politic! How unprincipled!

What do these comrades understand by fusion? Dissolving into Solidarity without a trace? What do they propose to effect unity? An excessive pliancy in questions of principle and the renunciation of criticism? Excuse me comrades, but when Marxists have entered centrist groups in the past it was not to renounce our ideas or the open struggle for them. That would have been impermissible. Rather they judged that tendencies within those groups were developing in a Marxist direction. They entered those groupings with a complete program and with the intention to fight for it. They were not content to mark time; they were not “prepared to become a minority tendency inside a broader Marxist current and for a prolonged period of time", as you propose. They were determined to fight for their point of view in order to influence developments.

Exactly what are you proposing Comrades? Spell it out!

To my mind, your proposal looks more like captivity than unity.

It seems evident that for a fusion to be workable there must be a spirit of reciprocity but as far as I can tell from the Bloom and Onasch proposals the compromises are all on the part of the FIT. The chief distinguishing insistence of Marxism is theoretical clarity; for centrism it is eclecticism. Can you explain how adapting to the latter and refraining from battle on the former will advance the formation of a revolutionary party in this country?

The fact is that our organizations proceed from profoundly different and even antagonistic bases. The only agreements we have are episodic and hardly profound. A fusion requires agreement not on second-rate matters—such as the Mandel tour and an occasional forum—nor on partial matters like a union election but on the fundamental ones like international links, party building, internal democracy, and trade union policy—and on this scores our agreements are extremely rare. If I am wrong you have the obligation to show me where and not just respond with more abstract “principles”and evasions.

I’d like to get something straight comrades. What questions of revolutionary politics are explicitly taboo for discussion? In this diplomatic negotiations mode, would it be taken as an impropriety if, for example, I raised the question of the nature of the Soviet state? The collapse of Stalinism has become a central question in world politics and the defense of the USSR against world imperialism a “big deal”for revolutionists. But in the interests of unity with solidarity, which comes out of the Shachtmanite tradition, is mum the word comrades?

And what about building a sympathizing section of the Fourth International? What do you say on this score comrades? I know that “in principle”the FIC is for the FI but they refuse to make propaganda for it inside Solidarity. This standpoint is hard enough to understand, let alone approve. If thus far Solidarity has shied away from a united Trotskyist party in this country and from a fraternal section of the FI there must be serious causes for it and there certainly are such. We ought to explain them. Here we are separated not by nuances of tactics but by fundamental questions.

We consider such a section, such an international bond, an imperious necessity for a successful socialist revolution in this country. How precisely are we going to work for it while marking time in Solidarity where it would be impolitic to raise it, let alone wage a fight for it? I can tell you right now that the elasticity so characteristic of centrism would quickly reveal its limits if we attempted to pin them down to a commitment concerning the Fl. Let’s be perfectly frank comrades because the question at issue is of such consequence. The deepest differences separate our internationalism from the internationalism of Solidarity.

A fusion with Solidarity would require a postponement of further building the international movement and that we cannot abide. Collaboration on an occasional Mandel tour or taking the plane back and forth to IEC meetings together seems to constitute the entirety of our international collaboration and that’s just not good enough. Fusion is a two-way street comrades, and we have some insistences of our own.

I want to take up one of the more shallow arguments presented by Bloom and Onasch because in a sense it is the most dangerous.

Both comrades express concern that the FIT is ‘getting too comfortable’ outside of a multi-tendencied organization. They suggest we’d be better off in the “more relaxed”and open atmosphere of Solidarity which they readily admit is more a socialist discussion club or network of activists than a political party. I’d just like to know why such an easy-going group of comrades would get so uptight if we raised our ideas. Wouldn’t a serious group of revolutionary Marxists find this discussion a compelling responsibility? The participation of different tendencies within a group presupposes trust in the possibility of convincing one another, learning from one another. But if any attempt to win a majority is considered a violation of decorum what then is the point of fusion? And wherein is the democracy? I think we need a party where we can democratically develop a program for action, where no questions of revolutionary policy are considered taboo. I do not want to sit around in a clubhouse “networking”or shooting the breeze with other comrades.

Bloom and Onasch have an obligation to explain to us why the atmosphere around Solidarity is so relaxed. My guess is that it’s because of the theoretical looseness that characterizes every centrist group. They read books and would be fun to shoot the breeze with but they reject theory—not just Trotskyist theory, but all theory—as a guide to action; they abhor the restrictions of program and principles. Anything decisive strikes them as doctrinaire. They’re derisive about our theoretical thoroughness (how often have they called us sectarians because of it?) and they reject democratic centralism. We on the other hand believe that without democratic centralism there’ll be no revolutionary party in this country and with no revolutionary party there’ll be no socialist revolution. So we take desertion and detours from this principle very, very seriously. It beats me what the comrades find so attractive about this perspective and I certainly hope they’ll explain more precisely than they have thus far.

Certainly the most unfortunate argument Comrade Bloom raises is the sentimental one. He argues that some FIC comrades “see our coherent and disciplined approach to politics as a useful ingredient.”He hints (because to speak clearly would be impolitic) that they don’t mean a Marxist program and Leninism but at least something that would make the troops look a little sharper. Anyway Bloom continues, if we “ignore their appeals to us and Solidarity does indeed have a crisis of some sort, what makes us think that the FIC comrades closest to us will then be attracted by our good example? More likely they will become alienated because they will blame us for the crisis in Solidarity. Their logic (sic) will be: If the FIT hadn’t been such damn sectarians, if only they had come in and helped us, this crisis could have been avoided.”

Does anyone seriously believe it is worth our time and trouble to attempt to persuade such confusionists?”Certain problems in Comrade BloomÕs proposal are, however, brought into focus now by this argument. Evasions and imprecisions about the programmatic basis for fusion now make sense. Because the transitional program for socialist revolution is not needed in the battle to save souls, which is what Bloom is proposing here. I for my part have more respect—not agreement—but respect, for the comrades in the FIC than to think they don’t know what they’re doing. Most of them have been in the revolutionary movement for over 20 years and they don’t need our aid. If they can’t whip Solidarity into shape we can’t help them. If it’s Leninism they’re looking for, that’s the project we’ve embarked on and they belong with us. Our goal is to build a revolutionary party not a salvation army.

Solidarity is a hybrid organization with quite a different past, different ideas, and a different future from us but which has temporarily—one might say, almost accidentally—associated itself with the Fl. The differences between us fall entirely into the framework of the conflict between Marxism and centrism and our temporary, formal connection neither changes that nor minimizes its importance nor obviates the political struggle between us.

Any kind of fusion with Solidarity at this time imposes dangerous and unacceptable restrictions on the program of Trotskyism and the present negotiations should be brought decisively to a close.

Marxism & Sectarianism

Those comrades who prefer fusion negotiations with SA rather then Solidarity are no less dismissive of theory and program than Bloom, Onasch and their supporters.

Once again the central question of the programmatic and principled basis for fusion is simply brushed aside with a flick of the wrist. There is virtually no critical analysis of program. The comrades brush aside the whole matter by simply saying there is ‘no principled obstacle’ to unification and from there they proceed at breath-taking speed to discuss with great elaboration the organizational procedures to accomplish it, complete with parity commissions, joint fractions, and other pointless structures.

Such an approach is not only non-political, abstract, wrong and dangerous but the methods employed involve abuses of democratic norms within our organization and must surely be reviewed at the proper time. This discussion of democratic functioning is, however, subordinate to the greater concerns of program.

Some of the comrades centrally involved in promoting these fusion maneuvers have acknowledged candidly to other comrades that they know it is impossible to fuse with SA at this time. Yet they insist on taking up the time and resources of both organizations in these fruitless maneuvers. We have every right to ask why and they have every obligation to explain clearly. Is this the method of Marxism or of Machiavellians?

I think that what we have here is not attraction to sectarianism so much as confusion about what it represents. I hope our discussion will suffice to refute the assertions that the differences between Marxism and sectarianism are “only”tactical questions. No indeed comrades. Occasional sectarian errors are part of any”revolutionary organization’s experience but a thoroughgoing sectarianism like that of SA is a programmatic problem and means our disagreements involve all the fundamental questions: theory, strategy, tactics, and organization. This seems abundantly clear from even the most superficial examination of SA and to call our differences “only”tactical provides a measure of how deep our confusion is.

If SA’s program is so good then why is their practice in every sphere of activity so bad? In any genuine Marxist organization word and deed correspond such shrieking contradictions between goals and methods as are found in SA do not exist, at least as pervasively. SA’s complete failure to understand and correct its mistakes is a reflection—and we have ample proof of this—that they have been unable to assimilate experience and are indifferent to facts. Their primary concern is to shield their dogma from contamination by experience.

The extreme antipathy of SA and Solidarity to each other is understandable since sectarianism is the polar opposite of centrism. Where centrism ignores theory, sectarianism reduces it to dogma. In both tendencies, however, theory is an abstraction, not a guide to action. It is not a contradiction that SA disregards its dogma when it can recruit in opposition to it but merely illustrates why Trotsky described the sectarian as an opportunist who fears his own opportunism.

Despite the repeated grand assertions that we have agreement “in principle”with SA, the comrades maintaining this have never been able to say once clearly and precisely where this agreement is and why we don’t see eye to eye on anything in practical work, i.e., in the real world and not on paper. The glaring contradictions between words and deeds mean something comrades. The reason for the Marxist insistence on program is not so we can give rousing good speeches once in awhile or write learned articles on obscure questions but in order to develop a guide to action for the working class. You have to explain why SA hails Cannon and imitates Barnes, why they argue for mass actions and united fronts and yet stand aloof from the movement as it is or obstruct those goals, why they repeatedly put their narrow organizational concerns over the problems of the class struggle as a whole, why they tail-end and brown nose, and why they engage in a lot of other unsavory maneuvers. You have a whole lot of explaining to do before you ever arrive at the need for a parity commission.

Probably every supporter of fusion with SA can point to some instances of collaboration. What interests us, however, is not isolated cases but their policy as a whole. Our collaborations are episodic but the questions in dispute with SA are neither episodic nor tactical but of a principled and strategic character and these need to be discussed in detail. We have in mind here not the stifling pedantry of the “balance sheet”approach to critical analysis nor a catechism recapitulating the theoretical acquisitions of the past on which we agree but clear and concrete analysis of the class struggle in America today.

But there’s one more problem comrades. If it is correct, as you argue, that we are in programmatic agreement with SA, that there are ‘no principled obstacles’ to fusion does that mean that we broke with them only on a tactical question? Such an admission would be a condemnation of our policy because how can we split and compromise a Marxist organization because of an episodic tactical difference? If our disagreement and consequent split was principled in nature, when did it change to “just tactical”? Differences as sharp and enduring as ours with SA do not involve nuances of tactics but fundamental questions. A thorough examination of this problem is required before fusion can be seriously considered. To proceed, as the comrades are, without this discussion can only disorient and miseducate our own ranks and embarrass and discredit the FIT within the radical movement as a whole.

The present fusion discussions are false from the standpoint of theory and fruitless from the standpoint of practice and should be drawn decisively to a close for the time being. Our chief task in the immediate future is to answer the question of what kind of party we are preparing for—on what principled basis and for what tasks? Our compelling responsibility as revolutionary Marxists is to apply the transitional program to the problems of American workers today. That is what programmatic clarification means. That is what it requires.

We are by no means sufficiently strong to create our own party at this point but we know what it is we want and we have our own methods to get it. They include a clear-cut program for action, the freedom to maneuver in order to try to influence tendencies developing in a revolutionary direction, the ability to criticize and to fight for our point of view on the basis of full equality, and our international ties. It is by these means we will reforge a revolutionary party and not through diplomatic equivocations.

Mary Scully—September 1991