M-L-M Mayhem! (Marxist-Leninist-maoist reflections)

Posted 13th January, 2012

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve complained off-and-on––sometimes humorously and sometimes with outright annoyance––about the cultish “marxist” groups that tend to afflict the broad left like an unfashionable sweater. Anyone who has spent time as an activist is very aware of these ultra-sectarian groups, of their dogmatic “holier-than-thou” attitudes, and how they make the lot of us look like backwards weirdos trapped somewhere between 1840 and 1915. And anyone (such as myself) who has spent a lot of years encountering these self-satisfied dogmatic cabals has learned that it is: a) generally unproductive to engage them because it is usually impossible to have an honest debate with close-minded zealots; b) better to ignore them, treating them as quaint and amusing, and hope that they will go away.

Quite often they’re the subject of leftist “in-jokes”, sort of like how one would laugh at an embarrassing family member. Around ten years ago, I used to have a group of friends who thought it was the height of entertainment to go to Spartacist events where the only other people in attendance would be the members of other Trotskyite sectarian groups (some who had split from the Spartacists) who only showed up to engage in inter-sectarian fights––all great fun for my friends who usually attended slightly inebriated, giggling at the back as they observed a war of theologies.

But after so many years of tolerating these uncritical dogmatists––who have shown up at events put on by other groups and/or coalitions since as far back as I can remember to repeat the same tired slogans, to start arguments, and to try and poach members from other groups––I am getting rather tired of their behaviour. Maybe this is because, after half a decade of choosing to avoid them and successfully avoiding/ignoring them at demonstrations and rallies, I have now had them force their unwanted attention on me in the same way that Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses bug me outside of subways and on street corners. What has stopped bugging me for half-a-decade is bugging me again: no wonder the rest of society thinks communists are nut-jobs, and that the bourgeoisie can sell the lie that “communism is just another religion”, with these people still hanging about.
Listen: when I say I don’t want to buy a copy of Workers Vanguard, don’t hover over me repeating yourself, staring at me with glassy-eyed fanaticism, and flipping anxiously through pages of said paper asking me if I’ve read your stupid and simple-minded analysis of historical events. Stop coming to events you didn’t help organize when you only plan to be a nuisance, blocking off hallways and trying to poach activists––learn how to organize something of your own that isn’t attended by your own members and isn’t an excuse to just talk at people.
Really, a part of me is amazed that these sorts of groups continue to exist, but obviously without growing and retaining pretty much the same numbers (give or take a few) of active members as they had fifty years ago. I’m especially amazed that they are able to take themselves so seriously when the rest of the left see them as a joke. But another part of me is not entirely amazed: I have referred to them as cults, as missionary marxists, and as dogmato-revisionists who think “that there is some sort of pure communism outside of time and space, and that they are the elect capable of reflecting and understanding this perfect theory […] they have abdicated a scientific view of revolutionary theory in favour of religious superstition.”
In other words, groups like the Spartacist League are cults, marxists in form but religious fanatics in essence, and should be treated as such. In the rest of this entry I will explain, point by point, why these tiny little trotskyist sectarian groups are the marxist equivalent of cults.

A. Dogmatism #1: mechanical application of doctrine

The inability to understand classical marxist theory as anything other than a collection of “sacred texts” demonstrates, as I have complained before, the religiosity of these cults. Rather than making sense of the historical method, by doing the hard work of interrogating the dialectical interplay between the interplay of the universal and the particular, these marxists assume that what is expressly written by Marx (filtered through Trotsky and whatever “experts” write their newspaper articles) is mechanically correct. A one-to-one relationships between doctrine and the concrete world is assumed; critical thought is abdicated in favour of rote repetition. Abstract categories replace the concrete: this is idealism, not materialism.
Take, for example, the simple-minded and offensive claim that peasant revolutions are “petty bourgeois” because peasants are “petty bourgeois.” Blasted out of the original social context, treated as a truth existing above and beyond the material world, this position originates from how Marx and Engels sometimes examined the class consciousness of the peasantry in nineteenth century Europe. But even if Marx and Engels were correct in their assessments of the European peasantry (and how dare anyone argue that the gods of communism might be wrong here and there!), universalizing the class content of the nineteenth century European peasantry to the rest of the world is a dogmatically mechanical, rather than critical, application of thought. A peasantry still existant in a cohering capitalist mode of production is not the same as a peasantry persisting in a capitalist formation on the periphery of world capitalism. One would expect that these dogmatists, with their obsession with doctrine, would have some notion regarding Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, but this is assuming that we can even call cultish dogmatism “marxism-leninism.”

B. Dogmatism #2: rote repetition rather than critical thinking
Ever deal with a religious fanatic standing at your door and trying to convert you? You probably recall how they tended to pepper their sales pitch for salvation with random quotes from their favoured religious text. Same thing with these marxist cult groups: and they like to repeat these quotes for comfort, as if they have the power to channel Marx from beyond the grave: Praise Trotsky!
(On a side note, it’s funny when they get their quotes wrong. Several months back a Spart quipped about humans making history, but not in circumstances they please, and then assigned this quote to Theses On Feuerbach. When I told him it was actually from 18th Brumaire on Louis Bonaparte, he refused to believe me––he was utterly convinced that I was essentially incapable of the same knowledge of Marx.)
If something exists beyond the sacred texts, beyond what is only acceptable as proper “marxist” thought, then it is unworthy of investigation. All critical and academic literature and theory that emerged after the 1950s might as well not exist because revolutionary theory ended with the death of Trotsky. Thus, if you mention concepts outside of this religious canon (i.e. “eurocentrism”, “anticolonialism”, “patriarchy”, etc.) then you are immediately speaking in terms the cultists refuse to investigate.
Although my knee-jerk reaction to this sort of dogmatism is to demand critical thinking––to point out that the mindless repetition of quotes is not only idealism but an argument from authority––I know that our dogmato-revisionist friends will simply reply by dismissing critical thinking as petty-bourgeois. Critical thinking has been done for us by Marx, Engels and Trostky, thus there is no point in learning to think critically. Clearly this defines the mindset of a religious cult: don’t think through the principles, don’t engage with the material world, the real thinking is complete and simply waiting to be applied.

C. Recruitment strategy
Like a cult, groups like the Spartacist League tend to recruit people who are a particular type of social outsider. No, not oppressed minorities or extremely exploited proletarians, but misanthropes––the kind of people who experience the petty-bourgeois alienation of not being “cool enough” who are excluded from the social circles of their class because of supposed “nerdiness” and other bullshit reasons.
Cults prey on social misanthropes. Being social animals, all of us desperately want to fit in––to find a group or groups that will accept us. Cults have always relied on a recruitment strategy that targets the socially excluded, often converting suburb kids who are unpopular in highschool and brain-washing them with a dubious notion of “friendship”.

D. Proselytization rather than organization
These groups generally refuse to organize, preferring to go to events organized by others and using these events as an excuse to preach their specific brand of leftism. So if you have a coalition of leftists gathering around some anti-imperialist cause, most of whom are on the same page, these folks will show up simply to tell everyone why they’re “stupid”, hoping that their self-declared cleverness will snag them more members. Refusing to organize outside of the student and left movements organized by others, they function only to preach a “pure” marxism and poach people mobilized by others.
The claim is that they are protecting a pure marxism and if they just preach “the good news”, the masses will be won over by their gospel and eventually join them. Thus they can always maintain a distance from organic movements (this way they can’t make mistakes, and their slogans can remain untainted), but “intervene” in the way that Mormons and Jehovahs Witnesses intervene on your daily life by ringing your doorbell.
Years ago some leftists used to argue that groups like the Spartacist League were most probably police agents: after all, why would someone waste so much time proselytizing in such a way so as to disrupt events that others worked hard to organize? But the truth is that, while the police might need to invent them if they didn’t exist, these groups are simply so invested in missionary dogmatism that they actually believe disruptive proselytization is the same as organization.

E. Persecution complex
The anti-capitalist left often has good reason to feel persecuted: the state is trying to maintain its power and does go out of its way to arrest and imprison leftists. And yet these marxist cults aren’t the groups being arrested (because they aren’t doing anything that really threatens the state), so the fact that they always act as if they are being targeted for their “radicalism” is similar to those religious groups who feel that they are not growing because of some pernicious conspiracy.
The thing is, since the rest of the left finds these groups annoying, then they create the terms for their persecution complex. And since they feel like they are disliked because they are “more clever” and “more revolutionary” than everyone else (nobody can understand how brilliant we are!), they are able to reconfirm their own existence by imagining that this is some form of oppression. By assuming that the reason they are disliked is because they are right and everyone else is wrong, the more they are disliked the more they feel they are correct. This is precisely how adherents to different forms of religious fundamentalism think.
Let’s be clear: you’re not being “persecuted”––people just think you are annoying and disruptive. The state is not trying to infiltrate and ruin your movement because your movement has done nothing in recent memory to challenge the power of the state.
In any case, as should be evident from the tone of this post, I am tired of interacting with people and groups who are the communist version of Moonies. Being a critical leftist, I enjoy friendships and long-standing intellectual debates with comrades/friends from various left-wing traditions: anarchists, autonomists, draperites, trotskyists and post-trotskyists, other maoists, indigenists, african nationalists, even stalinists. I think it is important to interact with people from various leftwing traditions, to support their initiatives and events, because I think it is important for us to learn from each other. Although I have a theoretical commitment to a specific political line, and am convinced that it is correct in principle, I am also aware that there is always a chance that my commitment might be proved wrong–-indeed, the reason I became committed to a marxist-leninist-maoist position in the first place was because of an open-minded and critical investigation and interaction with various traditions and organizations. In all my years as an activist, however, I cannot recall one conversation with a member of one of these missionary groups, in almost fifteen years of activist experience, that has been fruitful and/or politically relevant. Hell, even when I used to try and end conversations that were going nowhere by saying “let’s just agree that, despite our disagreements, we’re all communists and allies of some sort” I would usually be told that I was wrong because “we” are not “all communists” because only they are “true” communists.
As much as I don’t want to celebrate those moments in marxist history where extremely dogmatic trotskyites in third world contexts were targeted, whenever I walk away from conversations with dogmato-revisionists I can understand why this happened. Ho Chi Minh might have been theoretically inaccurate by claiming that the small cabal of Vietnamese trotskyites were “worse than fascists”, but the statement was a long result of having to deal with people who were organizing against the peasant-based anticolonial revolution because it was “not properly communist”. And if future revolutions throughout the world are going to be hampered by people with this sort of ideology, who resist revolutionary movements and end up siding with the oppressors in practice if not in theory, then it is clear that these marxist cults are more problematic than a leftist in-joke.