The Sect System

←Return to index

In the previous three sections, we (1) evaluated the practice of U.S. MLism (2) argued that its organizational forms are based on a dogmatic reading of the Bolshevik Party and (3) argued that “correct line” without mass organizing is illusory. Having explored what the ML trend is, we have to ask “why” – why did the trend come to be this way? We will begin by tracing the lineage of the three main ML groups in the U.S.

The PSL formed1 through a split from WWP in 2004, though today they espouse a nearly identical political ideology: Marcyism. In the 1950s, Sam Marcy led a faction in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) around the idea of “Global Class War”2. In this formulation, the world is increasingly polarized into two “class camps”: one of the imperialist bourgeoisie and the other of the global working class, the socialist countries, and the national liberation movements. Marcy’s faction eventually left the SWP in 1959 to form the Workers World Party. While WWP is much more sympathetic to the socialist countries and national liberation movements than the SWP or most Trotskyist groups, it originally maintained adherence to aspects of the basic Trotskyist framework such as transitional demands and anti-Stalinism. Although WWP does not have an official position on the Trotsky/Stalin question, most of the leadership are more partial towards Trotsky. However, both WWP and PSL self-identify as Marxist-Leninist.

FRSO comes from a completely different lineage: the New Communist Movement (NCM). The New Communist Movement was a Marxist-Leninist trend which dominated the revolutionary Left in the United States in the late-60s and the 70s3. It was composed largely of younger radicals (often former students) who were inspired by the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions and who looked suspiciously upon the Soviet Union and its U.S. affiliate the CPUSA. The NCM formulated itself as being anti-revisionist along the lines of Mao Zedong Thought (MZT)4, and broadly viewed the Soviet Union as social-imperialist or as having restored capitalism. FRSO was formed in 1985 by the merger of the Proletarian Unity League and the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters, two organizations of the late NCM that generally adhered to Mao Zedong Thought. While FRSO today recognizes the USSR as a socialist country up until its collapse in 1991, the original party line upheld the restorationist thesis. Thus, FRSO’s lineage can be planted firmly within U.S. Maoism as practiced in the NCM. That being said, FRSO is critical of the sectarianism, dogmatism, and ultra-leftism that characterized much of the practice of the NCM.

MLism in the U.S. is seen as the continuation of a revolutionary tradition from Marx to Mao. In reality, instead of a coherent “Marxist-Leninist” trend, there is some amalgam of Marcyist Trotskyism and Mao Zedong Thought. What should be immediately apparent is that U.S. MLism is hardly the product of an unbroken torch-passing of Marxist thought; rather, it is a trend formed out of multiple lineages of U.S. communist organization, forged from the practice of the New Left up through the collapse of the socialist bloc. However, this history is often concealed by its adherents. Such was the case during the NCM:

[NCM Marxist-Leninists] accepted the notion that there was one and only one revolutionary traditionand that there existed a single, genuine Marxism-Leninism that embodied its accumulated wisdom. They all believed that upholding their favored version of genuine Marxism-Leninism was the key to building a revolutionary movement. This established a never-ending quest for orthodoxy and a constant suspicion of heresy at the very center of the movement’s outlook.

But this entire framework (shared—though with different post-1917 icons—by pro-Soviet communism and Trotskyism) is fatally flawed. The conditions of economic, political and social life are so marked by constant change – and the history of popular and revolutionary movements is simply too complex—for there to be one pure tradition embodying all essential truths. A great deal can be learned from previous left experience, and identification with the history of the revolutionary movement can be a great source of strength. The contributions of Marx and Lenin still shed light on the workings of capitalism and the process of social change. They stand out for their breadth of vision and insistence on linking theory, practical work, and organization-building in an internationalist project. But it is an unwarranted leap from there to belief in a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to the present.5

What is today understood as MLism contains many analyses from its component parts (Marcyism, MZT) which are in tension with MLs’ self-image as representative of the global communist tradition. For instance, while the ML trend today rejects the thesis that capitalism was restored by the Soviet Union itself, most of the anti-revisionist framework which grew out of exactly this thesis still stands, including the categorization of the CPSU and its client parties as “revisionist” after Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in 1956 (or earlier). All of these positions, as well as the entire “five heads” tradition and the construction of a direct line from Marx to Mao, served originally as ideological justification for the Sino-Soviet Split. But considering the disastrous policies6 of the Chinese Communist Party due to the split, as well as the fact that the Vietnamese and Cuban parties, among others, refused to adopt the Chinese orientation against the Soviet Union, it does not seem to be a given that we should accept the basic anti-revisionist framework, which is exactly what the contemporary ML trend does without even realizing.

It is mistaken for the ML trend in the U.S. to view itself as cut from the exact same cloth as current or historical self-described Marxist-Leninist parties across the world for purely ideological reasons. Despite the fact that U.S. MLs “uphold” the Cuban Communist Party, or Mao Zedong’s contributions, or the FARC, or the PFLP, it does not follow that U.S. MLs are a part of a united tradition with all of these groups7. As materialists, we must recognize that an organization or trend must be appraised by its practice, not by its own words or ideology. One cannot simply “identify with” a swath of historical Parties and inherit their success and credentials. We believe this trend of appealing to the authority of other movements and parties is an important way that U.S. MLism seeks to legitimize itself while concealing its actual history and practice.

We have argued that U.S. MLism is not some continuation of an unbroken, eternal, global tradition of Marxism-Leninism. Rather, it is a specific, historically contingent trend that encompasses a variety of lineages from U.S. Trotskyism to the Maoist NCM. In other words, “Marxism-Leninism” as used today is an abstraction that conceals its real content. And this real content allows us to explain its flawed practice. U.S. Trotskyists, as well as those who upheld the Mao Zedong Thought of the NCM, were always organized in sects. Hal Draper, who had direct experience with this phenomenon, defines a sect as follows:

A sect presents itself as the embodiment of the socialist movement, though it is a membership organization whose boundary is set more or less rigidly by the points in its political program rather than by its relation to the social struggle. In contrast, a working-class party is not simply an electoral organization but rather, whether electorally engaged or not, an organization which really is the political arm of decisive sectors of the working class, which politically reflects (or refracts) the working class in motion as it is…

What characterizes the classic sect was best defined by Marx himself: it counterposes its sect criterion of programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, which may not measure up to its high demands. The touchstone of support (the “point d’honneur,” in Marx’s words) is conformity with the sect’s current shibboleths – whatever they may be, including programmatic points good in themselves. The approach pointed by Marx was different: without giving up or concealing one’s own programmatic politics in the slightest degree, the real Marxist looks to the lines of struggle calculated to move decisive sectors of the class into action – into movement against the established powers of the system (state and bourgeoisie and their agents, including their labor lieutenants inside the workers’ movement). And for Marx, it is this reality of social (class) collision which will work to elevate the class’s consciousness to the level of the socialist movement’s program.8

We believe our arguments suggest that U.S. Marxism-Leninism fits this definition. ML groups in the U.S. are defined primarily by and praised for their political program rather than their practice in organizing with the class. Programmatic standards are imposed onto the class instead of forged through struggle, as we saw when analyzing the protest strategy of WWP or PSL’s use of PCoR. ML organizations cohere their membership around specific positions on historical and international events and actors, rather than on shared strategy of mobilizing and organizing various layers of the working class. Additionally, their dogmatic adherence to “democratic centralism” as well as their focus on protests and sloganeering in practice cements them on an ideological basis rather than a strategic one.

While groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative on the one hand and the PSL and WWP on the other have very different political positions, we believe their similarities outweigh their differences. Both sets of groups focus a great deal of energy on “activist culture” and building their sect, while what separates them foremost is their signage at demonstrations and their newspapers9. What’s more important, in our evaluation, is the ways in which groups engage with and organize the class in order to build working-class institutional power. In that sense, the ISO, WWP, RCP, etc. are united in their status as sects rather than genuine mass organizations.

U.S. Trotskyist, Marcyist, and New Communist Movement groups rarely developed a mass base or grew beyond a few hundred members, even if at times the prospects were favorable. Everything from their intense focus on political line to their mode of organization guaranteed that they would remain marginalized. They never matched the level of mass organization that the broader Communist movement did because they tried to force themselves into existence in a completely ahistorical and backwards way, thinking that the essence of Leninism consisted in the tightening of discipline caused by the Civil War and the prospect and actuality of international revolution. But for the Trotskyists, the Marcyists, and the anti-revisionists, all it created was sects of greater or smaller size. We must acknowledge the objective limitations imposed by the state of class struggle, including, but not limited to, state repression, popular anti-communism, concessions made by the ruling class, and global counter-revolution. However, we maintain that the errors of the 60s and 70s Left contributed greatly to its collapse.

Another relevant concept to help us understand U.S. MLism is what Max Elbaum called “miniaturized Leninism”:

[M]ost groups began to act as if adopting a certain set of principles meant being anointed by history or given the franchise as the proletarian vanguard.

The result was the rise to hegemony of a sort of Leninism in miniature. Leninist precepts were cited, but their meaning was drastically narrowed in scope and scale. Sixty-year-old polemics written as guidelines for a party of thousands to interact with a movement of millions were interpreted through the prism of how organizations of hundreds (or even dozens) should interact with movements of thousands (or less). The tendency toward mechanical formulas and organizational narrow-mindedness went from having a certain influence to becoming deeply entrenched. The movement’s vision of a vanguard party was reduced to the model of a sect. Just when a dose of fresh thinking was needed to transcend the limits of the Stalin-Mao model and expand on the valuable insights in Lenin’s thought, the movement’s strongest groups headed in the exact opposite direction. Miniaturized Leninism was Leninist in form, but sterile in content.10

We believe that U.S. MLism also fits this concept. In particular, our earlier argument on the history of “democratic centralism” suggests that U.S. MLism is disconnected from its own history and that its project has been to attempt to operate like historical parties that (1) had much more of a mass character and (2) were undergoing direct military conflict.  Elbaum’s term also helps explain MLs’ reliance on the “canonical texts”. Consider, for example, the “Basic Marxism-Leninism study plan”. The guide contains several thousand pages of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and one text by each Stalin and Mao. Not only does it exclude other Marxists from the era such as Gramsci, Luxemburg, and Lukács, but it also excludes more contemporary thinkers like Samir Amin or Etienne Balibar. On top of that, it consists solely of primary sources, providing no context for the highly specific debates that Lenin and Marx were engaging in. We do not believe this study guide to be an anomaly, but rather indicative of a wider trend of constructing an ML ‘canon’.

For another example, consider the U.S. ML designation of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao as the most important theorists of Marxism. At best, the “five heads” formulation downplays the contributions of other contemporary Marxists like Gramsci, Ho Chi Minh, and many others. At worst, these five figures are seen as a series of prophets that bring Pure Science down to the masses. It is often said that Bob Avakian of the RCP cult is not deserving of the “sixth head” position. But the problem is not that Avakian is a false prophet; the problem is that there are prophets at all.

Can Marxism-Leninism be salvaged?

Let’s briefly return to Stalin’s definition of Leninism as Marxism in a definite historical period (that of imperialism and proletarian revolution). Broadly speaking, the world is still in the era of imperialism as Lenin defined it. However, since Stalin’s formulation: the Eastern Bloc has collapsed, formal colonialism has largely been replaced with neo-colonialism, Keynesianism has been replaced with neo-liberalism, and the United States has emerged as the dominant imperialist power. Are we in the same period that Stalin speaks of? Certainly a lot has changed.

Beyond that, Stalin emphasizes that Marx and Engels were in a pre-revolutionary period. When Stalin was writing, the Soviet Union had just been established and capitalist crisis was on the horizon. Throughout the 1920s, the Comintern pursued a fairly “leftist” strategy, hoping for revolution to spread to more countries. Are we in a revolutionary period in the U.S. right now? Clearly not. One could perceive a revolutionary situation arising sometime in the next several decades, but it is hardly on the immediate agenda. It is clear that our time is very different from Stalin’s. While “proletarian revolution” is still our goal in general, it is not constitutive of our current period in the way that it was for Stalin’s, in that we are not in a period of major revolutionary upheaval.

Thus, we would argue that U.S. “Marxism-Leninism” is an historically contingent ideology rather than a modern iteration of Marxism fit for our time and place. However, that does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. The successes and failures of 20th century socialist experiments have much to teach us moving forward, from how to organize unemployed workers to how to run a planned economy. Lenin is arguably the most important Marxist since Marx, and it would do us good to learn from him and the evolution of his thought, not a mythological, prophetic version of Lenin. While we should study and learn from Leninism, we should also study other trends: autonomism & operaismo, Marxist-feminism, pre-war social democracy, and all historical anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and feminist movements.

The deep-seated dogmatism of U.S. MLism has become a fetter on the development of a genuinely new and creative Marxism for our era. We are not suggesting a return to anarchism or social democracy. Nor are we suggesting a return to the young Marx, or the “true” Lenin, or what-have-you. We are not abandoning Marxism-Leninism for Cliffite Trotskyism, or council communism, or any other trend. Our goal is to escape the sect system altogether, of which the contemporary U.S. ML trend consists. Thus, we are in favor of abandoning U.S. “Marxism-Leninism” in favor of an ecumenical approach to Marxism, which includes the historical contributions of the communist movement in general.

Next section: So What Do We Do? →

←Return to index


  1. (back) See the 2004 founding statement of the PSL. The reasons for the split have never been fully elaborated on, but it seems to have been over organizational issues.
  2. (back) See Sam Marcy’s original formulation within the SWP
  3. (back) See Revolution in the Air by Mark Elbaum
  4. (back) It should be noted that MZT is distinct from what today we might call “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” (MLM) or sometimes simply “Maoism.” Confusingly, adherents to MZT called themselves simply “Marxist-Leninists,” viewing themselves as part of an anti-revisionist camp headed by the Communist Party of China in opposition to the Soviet Union. This camp would later further produce Hoxhaism after the split between the Communist Party of China and the Party of Labour of Albania. But “MLM” as we understand it today is mainly the product of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM), in particular the Communist Party of Peru–Shining Path. It came into being in the 1980s and 90s and conceives of itself as a third and higher stage of Marxism, making Marxism-Leninism obsolete. We believe that today’s Marxism-Leninism is highly constituted by MZT.
  5. (back) Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, pg. 323-324
  6. (back) Including rapprochement with the U.S. and reactionary foreign policy in Angola, Chile, Iran, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Sri Lanka, and Oman, all springing from the disastrous thesis that Soviet “social imperialism” was a greater danger than the U.S.
  7. (back) It is worth noting that even beyond the problem of simply “identifying with” a Marxist-Leninist tradition, the ideologies of the groups that MLs “uphold” are far more eclectic than they give credit for. Such ideologies include Juche, Mao Zedong Thought, Huey P. Newton’s intercommunalism, Deng Xiaoping Thought, Hoxhaism, etc.
  8. (back) Hal Draper, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” (1973)
  9. (back) It is very telling that all of these groups trace their roots to the Socialist Workers Party. And besides ISO, SAlt, WWP, and PSL, the only other prominent communist groups draw their lineage from the NCM (FRSO and RCP). While the CPUSA still exists, it is largely ignored. So without the CPUSA, there is no direct organizational link in the U.S. to classical Marxism-Leninism.
  10. (back) Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, pg. 196

3 replies on “The Sect System”

Comments are closed.