I’M SITTING IN a gay bar in Austin. We’ve just ended a planning session for an LGBT rights action by a group that claims to be independent, non-partisan, and strictly focused on queer and trans equality. Someone there is from the soft-Trotskyist International Socialist Organization. They commit the ISO as an co-endorser on the spot. Someone else talks about how they just paid their first month’s ISO dues. The website for the LGBT organization has bios for many of the leaders; most of them just happen to contain the phrase “…is a member of the International Socialist Organization.”
Not everyone in the set of organizational networks and social scenes we call “the US activist community” calls themselves revolutionary. However, those that do have a rainbow of radical organizations to join, with more shades of anarchism, socialism, and communism than most people will ever hear of. Given the radical population’s limited size, competition is fierce, both for already-converted leftists and the as-yet-uninitiated.
However, these organizations are faced with a problem. Few people get involved with activism because they want to be recruited by an ideological formation; issue-based work is what draws the crowds. So what is an ambitious, forward-looking sect to do?
I’m sitting in a meeting with the leaders of a left-wing transgender group I’ve been working with for months. In theory, it welcomes adherents of any philosophy, so long as they’re for socialism. However, I’ve noticed that the group seems to be focusing an enormous amount of time on projects initiated by a tiny Maoist sect. A few weeks earlier, the trans organization had denounced an anarchist bookstore (and anarchism in general) when the bookstore told the Maoists they couldn’t recruit there. The Maoist group and the trans group seem to be co-sponsoring all of each other’s events, too. I ask what’s up with that – aren’t we supposed to be non-sectarian? I’m told that any trans radical, Maoist or not, can join and “struggle their line” (Maoist jargon for “advocate for a political position”). However, they claim, anarchists who join “tend to stop being anarchists,” and they admit they’d sanction any member who publicly disagreed with their official positions for being “unprincipled.”
The nature of a sect is to treat its own existence as self-justifying. The opinions of its members are uniquely true, and that qualifies them to lead the people. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is vanguardist or anarchist, communist or liberal. A sect is a sociological phenomenon, regardless of the particular jargon it uses. Instead of emerging from the real-life struggles of working-class communities against business and government oppression, sects work out in advance how things are “supposed” to go. When real life doesn’t cooperate, they become marginal. Sometimes that’s self-imposed: they might ignore causes they deem impure. More often, though, it’s because most people can smell bullshit. They don’t appreciate the self-appointed “leadership” of a groupuscule with a messiah complex. By themselves, few sects would be able to attract enough support to sustain themselves for any length of time. At the same time, they’re often astute enough to notice the radical potential of movements not of their own making (not to mention those movements’ often-substantial popular support).
So, a solution begins to present itself.
It’s 2005 and I’m talking with someone who wants to organize a high school walkout. The call is from what’s ostensibly a big-tent movement to “drive out the Bush regime.” Of course, the anti-Bush flyers and walkout information aren’t all this person has – they’re also passing out materials that explain that to really beat the Bush agenda, the only solution is revolution. And serious revolutionaries know, of course, that we need serious revolutionary leadership. Luckily, the organizer has found that leader: a dorky-looking white guy from Berkeley who likes it when you call him “the Chairman.”
Most activists get involved in the scene because they want to do work on one or another specific cause. The bulk of that work happens under the auspices of narrowly-focused, single-issue nonprofits. Logically enough, it’s therefore to those that activists generally look. Tight-knit ideological sects can rarely fill a room. So, they imitate the NGOs that can. A front group is independent in form and subordinate in practice. Because of that subordination, it necessarily has little internal democracy. Luckily for their parent groups, though, neither do other nonprofits – a well-organized front looks at first glance like any other activist campaign. From a rank-and-file activist’s perspective, there are only a few meaningful differences.
One of those differences is that, with a liberal campaign group, the liberalism that’s practiced is also preached. The Sierra Club does not want to replace the fundamental institutions of the economy and the government. It doesn’t claim to want to, and indeed it never could. However, the ANSWER Coalition does appear to endorse a form of revolutionary politics. The difference, of course, is that ANSWER belongs to a self-styled vanguard called the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
Every nonprofit is, in practice, a profit-generating capitalist company. Sectarian fronts are no exception. However, their parent organizations’ ostensible commitment to revolution (not reform) creates a unique internal contradiction: where most NGOs pay lip service to “deep and systemic change” and try to sell you the notion that their work is directly contributing to that, for the front group “radical change” comes from joining the parent organization. They simultaneously hawk reform and the belief that reform is, at best, inadequate. Of course, if they said that too openly, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. Imagine if Refuse Fascism were to say outright: “to really oppose Trump, you need to join the Revolutionary Communist Party”—how long do you think the flow of recruits and foot soldiers would last?
And so, these groups end up in a position where their purpose (recruiting for the parent organization) and their methods (agitating, liberal-style, for specific reforms) are ultimately at odds. If one should join the Party (or anarchist anti-party) and reject reformism, then why get involved with a single-issue reform project? If reform campaigns are correct political practice, why sign up with the would-be revolutionary leaders?
Clearly, something has to give. Usually, it’s honesty.
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told.”
IF MOST revolutionary groups could successfully appeal to the general public under their own banner, they would not bother creating front groups. While front groups do attract many more people than their sponsors, simple membership in a front is not generally enough to get most people comfortable with the “leadership” of (say) Maoists or Trotskyists. Were the front’s leaders to entirely conceal their affiliation with the sponsor, however, they wouldn’t be able to use the front for recruiting. So, what do they do?
When one asks, it’s always an innocent coincidence that the front’s officers all just happen to be members of whichever party—there’s nothing dishonest or undemocratic if members of that party, by chance, are the same ones who are doing the front’s wonderful work, because they’re just so selflessly committed to the cause. Without that ambient mendacity, the entire sect/front scheme would collapse. Deniability only works if it seems plausible.
And that has a broader effect on the organized Left. Why should revolutionary politics mean zero transparency, no public dissent from within a group, and general evasiveness when asked for too many details (like what the actual membership numbers are for any of the self-described “largest revolutionary organizations in the US”)? The use of front groups helps normalize the sects’ loose attitude towards the truth.
Through their fronts, supposedly anti-capitalist organizations enter the fundamentally capitalist NGO world. They compete in a literal marketplace, selling their political work to consumers in exchange for donations and volunteer hours. Why does everyone pay lip service to “left unity,” then split and squabble in practice? Well, how much unity would you expect between Pepsi and Coke? They’re fighting for each other’s customers. Sure, this disrupts the movement the sects all claim to want. But as any socialist should know, material interests have a way of edging out subjective beliefs. For instance, working-class people have a material interest in collective empowerment through solidarity. Because that inherently puts them into conflict with capitalist businesses, business and the state must spend astronomical sums each year on propaganda, miseducation, union-busting, and advertising to convince them otherwise. Since Left sects operate as businesses in spite of their intentions, reality pits them against their own stated goals.
Actually-existing revolutionary activism is profoundly counter-revolutionary.
“For them the sect is not an unfortunate necessity due to the absence of a real movement: it is their movement…they are not inhibited by the prejudice that a ‘party’ needs much of a rank and file.”
– Hal Draper, Anatomy of the Micro-Sect
It won’t be controversial to admit that the activist subculture is not very appealing for most people outside of it. Even those of us in it know how deeply off-putting it is when the newspaper-hawkers or urban guerrilla wannabes show up. Now, there’s plenty going on there – the “movement’s” subculturalism and middle-class, anti-worker orientation have many sources. Most of those were not caused by the behavior of revolutionaries. After all, it’s not socialists who invented the politics of insularity and performance, or who put academia at the activist world’s center (although they’ve certainly come to embrace those phenomena).
But that’s not good enough. Revolutionaries need a higher standard than being only second-tier offenders. If conduct across the activist community turns people away from progressive politics in general, then bad revolutionary behavior not only contributes to the overall problem, but also undermines socialism in particular. The self-serving dishonesty of front groups provides one particular example. Others follow from the culture of dissimulation and sectarianism that the front group model helps create and reproduce.
The consequences of sectism extend beyond the sects themselves, too. Currently, the sects maintain a functional monopoly on the ideas of socialism, communism, and anarchism. When they drive away people who should be natural comrades (and everyone who’s ever been screwed over by the boss should be a natural comrade), they don’t just discredit themselves. They discredit revolution. They make it even harder than it needs to be to create a mass socialist movement. And while plenty of them will agree that the organized Left is rife with bad behavior, few of them see the problem as sectism and frontism per se. Rather, they blame it on all those other sects, whose particular shibboleths about Russia, China, and the best forms of socialist heraldry are just so wrong. As David Rovics sings:
“I am not sectarian. It’s all the rest who are. I work fine in coalitions – as long as I’m the shining star.”
So what’s the way out? Should revolutionaries just sit mass movements out? Should we quit organizing?
THERE ARE healthy, helpful, and honest ways to do revolutionary organizing. You don’t have to be an inward-looking, deceptive sect to do radical work. Instead, we can do things to build institutions that empower the people without hurting our cause more than we hurt capitalism:
- Tell the truth. If a supposedly independent organization is actually a front, say so! Don’t humor its leaders (and sponsor). If a group is acting badly, acknowledge it, even if you’re a member. Don’t go along to get along. Organizational secrecy isn’t always a matter of security culture. Don’t pretend it is. Lying and tolerating lying are never radical. Sure, most groups that fetishize their own lack of transparency likely don’t have skeletons quite as horrific as the rape scandals that have torn through the Socialist Workers Party (UK), the International Socialist Organization, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back). Even so, the underlying logic of deception is the same, and there are many shades of destructive misconduct.
- Don’t confuse ideology, identity, morality, and class. What’s the point of being a revolutionary? It’s to build up power and freedom for the exploited through participatory democracy, in the economy and everywhere else. The point isn’t to get your ideas perfectly right and denigrate anyone who disagrees. If someone’s ideas are the same as yours, it doesn’t automatically mean their conduct isn’t harmful. If someone has a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily correct. If someone disagrees with you, they may still be a good and ethical person. And class—one’s position within the economy, in which only those who own businesses have real power and exploit everyone else—is something else entirely. We can’t afford to try for a movement of the insightful and correct. Instead, we need to organize the working class (broadly defined) because that’s what has the structural ability to change the system. Now, if that is to happen, then all types of bigotry and oppression within the class must be challenged and uprooted, or else the revolution will never succeed. Working to break down racism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are central forms of class struggle. However, you don’t have to understand that to be part of the working class. You just have to be someone who does waged (and/or unwaged) labor and lacks the structural power of business ownership. The basic question is always: “Do you have power over business, or does business have power over you?”
- Class beats subculture. The ability to challenge the ruling class does not come from suffering or being marginalized. It comes from collectively doing the work that creates everything. (That includes not just goods and services sold on the market, but also the everyday work of reproducing the social fabric. Even unemployed and unemployable people do that. You don’t have to have a job to be a worker.) Conversely, the ruling class – the business owners – has power over that work and the people who do it. Therefore, the working class has a material stake in changing the system (it currently does everything and controls nothing). Further, it has the ability to actually do so if it acts collectively: by starting to do that work in a democratically self-determined way, ignoring the ruling class’s orders, and defending itself when the ruling class tries to force it to obey. We should be in this to win, not to perform righteousness. That means we must be ethically upright, but without confusing morality with anything but itself. That also means that while organized revolutionary groups may or may not serve a useful purpose in a given situation, they’re never the point. They aren’t inherently valuable (and what matters is whether you treat them as ends in themselves in practice, not whether you affirm it in words). Frontism, naturally, implies the latter. That helps kill movements before they can be properly born (or worse, twists them into something actively dangerous). After all, the activist subculture fixates on correctness of ideas rather than working-class power for a reason. It’s dominated by professors, students, and nonprofits. Academia is capitalism’s idea factory, and obsessing over rightness makes perfect sense for professional academics. After all, their job is literally to prove themselves right and their competitors wrong! Their market share, their career success, depends on it. So, it’s only natural that they act as if staking out your one and only truth and trying to exile everyone else is a sensible strategy. But in real life, it’s not. Don’t buy it when someone claims it is.
- Participatory democracy beats being right. Don’t mistake radical words for authentic radicalism. A shibboleth is never helpful. A sect is just a shibboleth with an organization as its body. A project is useful only to the extent that it’s controlled by the people who benefit from it and by the rank-and-file people who do the ground-level work. Sure, express your revolutionary beliefs while you build institutions like that. You can even (if the circumstances warrant) establish a formal group with others. But you’re one participant among many, not a vanguard. Your ideas don’t give you the right to take over.
- Don’t tolerate entryism. What is entryism? A working definition is the way some ideological sects infiltrate larger organizations with an eye towards taking them over. Entryism means turning a pre-existing campaign into a front group, instead of starting one from scratch. It’s rampant – the entire socialist, communist, and anarchist spectrum is rife with it. It’s also inherently dishonest and antidemocratic. Those who engage in it are revolutionary in words and reactionary in deeds. And seeing it happen without publicly naming it and working to stop makes you complicit.
- Pluralism is revolutionary. When everyone working on something agrees with each other, or shares a limited personal background, the project is weaker for lack of dissent and experimentation. Front groups and sectarianism inherently incline towards that weakness, as does the toleration of racism, sexism, and chauvinism in general. Don’t engage in those. Don’t accept them. And conversely, don’t turn your particular ways of opposing them into shibboleths that lead to exclusionary moralism, either. As Pagans, we know how sterile narrow orthodoxy is. The Left needs to learn it too.
Do you want a revolution?
Be honest. Be ethical. Be pluralist and democratic. Don’t put up with front groups or sectarian nonsense – unless you’re fine with an insular, hostile, and elitist subculture. As we can see, that state of affairs is only good for perpetuating itself. Of course, that suits the ruling class just fine. They want an opposition that undermines itself.
We can do better. After all, we have a duty to win. So let’s get our act together – the coming years under President Trump will give us much less leeway to screw around than we’re used to.
We can’t afford to wait.
Sophia Burns is a polytheist, Kybele devotee, and communist organizer in the US Pacific Northwest.
Sopia Burns was published in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. That issue is available here.
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