Sectarianism is a term of which the left is extremely fond. It means that a small group is defining themselves as those who are right (as opposed to the rest of us who are wrong). Therefore this small group, because they are right, have a moral duty to impose their opinions by any means necessary on the rest of us. Obviously, people who are wrong cannot be allowed to mislead the people! This makes the small group necessarily destructive in its behaviour even if its policies are indeed right and even if the policies of others are indeed flawed.
The problem becomes acute when there are several such groupings, all of whom insist that they alone are right. The problem is exaggerated when all these groupings have, or at least profess, the same policies and situational analysis. This is the primary reason why left-wing organisations tend to dissolve into multiple factions hurling rocks at each other while shouting slogans which nobody outside the organisations can understand. It accounts for the widespread ridicule which the far left faces (the cleverest of which is the famous “People’s Front of Judea” sequence from the film The Life Of Brian).
There is a further problem with sectarianism. If you believe that your policy is correct, and that all others are wrong, you will be very reluctant to work with anyone else. Actions which others undertake must be opposed, because if you supported them you would be helping to strengthen an organisation with the wrong policy, and remaining neutral is not an option, so therefore you will work to undermine them.
During the 1980s there were several organisations in Cape Town, mostly holdovers from Neville Alexander’s “National Forum” which had swiftly disintegrated due to sectarianism, which functioned like this. They never took an initiative of their own, but instead, whenever the UDF called for a boycott, or the MDM for a stayaway, or COSATU for a strike, these organisations would appear in press-conference or pamphlet form to call on the public not to support these actions. Very often the pamphlets issued by these people were indistinguishable from fake pamphlets issued by the secret police for the same purpose. These organisations had decided to postpone all anti-apartheid action until they had succeeded in destroying the only effective anti-apartheid movement. (This kind of tendency is wickedly caricatured in the figure of “Gus” in Richard Rive’s Emergency.)The fact that sometimes their criticisms of the anti-apartheid movement had some validity does not excuse the fact that they spent their labours working to protect and defend apartheid.
What concerns me is that the same sort of thing seems to be happening at the moment. I don’t know what is going on within the EFF, whether it has any democratic structures or whether it has grassroots support. People actually seem afraid to talk about it; the DA enjoys far more open support in the african community at Fort Hare than the EFF does. However, it’s pretty obvious that the EFF, whatever its faults are, is the only party proposing to contest the elections which has a policy challenging the ANC-DA neoliberal consensus and which has any prospect of gaining representation. As such, the left should support it, and yet to put it mildly the organised left’s response is tepid. (Obviously that means the left outside the officially Charterist movement, which has ceased to be left in any sense of the word; the EFF is actually Charterist but has been formally excommunicated by Pope Gwede the Infallible.)
The primary EFF policy challenging the status quo is the proposal to nationalise the mining and financial industry. This is a nineteenth-century policy; the concept of “seizing the commanding heights of the economy” dates back to the Fabian movement and was originally written into the British Labour Party Constitution by Sydney Webb. (It was deleted by Tony Blair.) It is not, of course, socialist, but it does entail severely weakening the power of local and transnational capital, and therefore of imperialism, to determine the policies of the government; it is therefore a necessary precondition for socialism to be introduced, and therefore all socialists should support it.
What has actually happened, however, is that the EFF (in its former incarnation as the old ANC Youth League) put this forward in 2007, and the left sat on its hands. The leftists within COSATU, terrified of the SACP (which opposed the formulation on preposterously specious grounds) did not speak out. The Trotskyites outside the Charterist movement shouted, ineffectually, along with the SACP. However, once the inevitable purge had destroyed the ANCYL and expelled its leadership, some of these factions, notably NUMSA within COSATU and the “Workers’ and Socialists’ Party” (WASP) within the Trotskyite movement, suddenly took over the ANCYL formulation lock, stock and barrel, as if they had always been in favour of it. In reality, they had been afraid to support anything which would antagonise the ruling class, until a sufficient constituency for this policy had been built up by the ANCYL. It wasn’t about expressing the right policy at all; it was about trying to seize the constituency which the ANCYL had built up.
But then the EFF was formed, and the constituency appears (if we may believe the corporate pollsters) to have gone over to it — which is hardly surprising, since a) they invented the policy appealing to that constituency, and b) they are the only force which has consistently fought for it and made sacrifices for it. Meanwhile, NUMSA suddenly finds itself under direct attack from its own parent organisation COSATU, probably as a direct result of adopting these policies (but also as a result of challenging the organisation’s leadership in support of a more sympathetic leader, Zwelenzima Vavi, who has been purged).
It was not, however, NUMSA, but WASP which first approached the EFF. It appears that they offered some kind of cooperation, rather in the way that Agang offered some kind of cooperation with the DA. (They were, after all, pursuing the same constituency, sometimes directly competing, as in WASP’s and the EFF’s attempts to mobilise in the platinum mining belt.) Unlike the DA, the EFF felt free to reject the overture; they did not need WASP and certainly did not view WASP as any kind of supportive force, but instead suggested that WASP disband and join the EFF. This is not really sectarian; they were not denouncing or repudiating WASP, simply noting that WASP was tiny and ineffectual.
However, WASP seems to have taken this as an affront. NUMSA, meanwhile, rejected the EFF’s overtures. This was also reasonable, but what was more surprising (given NUMSA’s weak position and the essential identity of their policies with the EFF’s) was that NUMSA went on to denounce the EFF in terms not very different from the SACP’s or the white bourgeois media’s. This was a sectarian act, for it ignored objective reality in favour of the interests of the leadership of the movement camouflaged with spurious political justifications.
More recently it has turned out that while NUMSA was unwilling to collaborate with the EFF, their political education sessions draw heavily on Trotskyite academics from the University of Johannesburg (which is the heartland of WASP, and if these academics are not actually members of WASP they are certainly its allies). The purpose of these academics in their educational policies was not to help NUMSA understand its policy of setting up a “Workers’ Party” (which is actually a problematic policy) or even to help NUMSA pursue such a policy (how could they, when these academics have no experience of such activities?). Instead, the goal of these academics was to fuel NUMSA’s hostility to the ANC and COSATU, and to discourage NUMSA from aligning itself with the EFF. Neither of these goals has much to do with the interests of the South African organised working class, but it has everything to do with furthering the agendas of South African Trotskyism. And yet NUMSA shop stewards seem to have lapped this up, even when the bizarre spectacle of an office-bound bourgeois intellectual lecturing workers about the significance of service delivery protests manifested itself.
So what seems to be happening is that NUMSA is being schooled in sectarianism. It is of course true that if and when NUMSA is expelled from COSATU, it will be in a position to set up a “Workers’ Party” which might be in competition with the EFF. However, such a party would not simply be a parliamentary party (which is what the EFF is at the moment) but in theory ought to be a wider movement. It would not necessarily be in direct competition with the EFF, except perhaps in election time, whereas both NUMSA and the EFF are at one in comparison with their opponents, which are the neoliberal intelligentsia, the tycoons of finance and the agents of international capitalist imperialism. Therefore there ought to be a way in which the two could cooperate without having to be allies. Indeed, the EFF has ostentatiously refrained from attacking NUMSA or WASP in response to their attacks on it. This might seem surprising given how virulently the ANCYL attacked its opponents within the ANC when it was attacked there. However, it seems that the EFF is prepared to see NUMSA and WASP as competitors rather than enemies.
It might be possible for this to be worked out by all. In a recent issue of Amandla, one of the Western Cape ultra-leftists acknowledged that the EFF was not fascistic and could perhaps be seen as progressive — thus breaking with the spurious SACP rhetoric which has been all too widely imitated on the left. If so, then the EFF either ought to be supported, or at least ought not to be opposed. However, WASP is not willing to do this — perhaps because its leaders are personally offended at being treated like members of an insignificant bourgeois clique — and NUMSA is not willing to do this — perhaps because its leaders feel that they, and not the EFF, have the right to reap the rewards of the work which the EFF has been doing, on the grounds that they were there first, even if they did not have the guts to speak their minds until the EFF had prepared the ground for years.
At the moment this does not matter. NUMSA is not going to get its Workers’ Party together within the next year. WASP was not going to amount to anything, and its hostility means no more than the lukewarm sympathy of the “Democratic Left Front” might mean. The field is open for the EFF in parliamentary terms. However, in the future, all this squabbling will probably amount to something; it may be used against the EFF once it is a serious opposition party (the pseudo-leftist Maverick journalist Hlongwane has already denounced the EFF as insufficiently radical, showing how the right wing knows how to play ultra-leftists like an ocarina). It will either be used to split the EFF, or to discourage workers and socialists from supporting the EFF and thus ensuring that the left wing does not amount to anything in terms of political power. That’s a prospect to be worried about.