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The divisions in the radical left and the means to overcome them

Manuel Afonso, Semear o futuro, from Portugal

Juan Miró, Azul II

Illusion is the most tenacious nourishment of collective consciousness.
History teaches, but it has no pupils.
Antonio Gramsci [1]

The history of the anti-capitalist left, in general, and of Trotskyism, in particular, but not limited to it, is filled with divisions. Throughout this history, in many segments of the left, especially the ones claiming to be more revolutionary, a type of party regime has been created that sees division as the natural and inevitable form of resolving political differences. This is tragic because this method makes it impossible to build left and anti-capitalist parties that are not in constant crisis and that can have mass influence.

A regime of permanent splits and homogenous directions is the normal practice of a large part of the left, particularly the radical left – although it has not always been this way. This regime can serve to maintain small groups that aim to “keep the flame alive” and are content with “not capitulating to reformism” – highly defensive objectives. But it does not serve to unite revolutionaries, build mass parties, and defeat the capitalist system. Therefore, this is not just any problem. Nor is it a problem specific to a particular organization: it is a central debate about the future of anti-capitalist struggle. All of us must critically examine ourselves in this light.

If we analyze the history of the radical left, particularly but not only of Trotskyism (from which the author of these lines claims to be part of), in the last 40 years, we can see that most of the splits do not occur due to programmatic, strategic, or principled issues. The divisions often arise around tactical choices that, while important at any given moment, are secondary to the objectives of those fighting for socialism.

This situation creates a problem. When there are changes in the political situation, it is natural for different explanations, interpretations, and opinions to arise regarding how to overcome the crisis or how to approach the new situation. Naturally, these differences manifest in divergent opinions about the best tactics regarding intervention in reality or about the orientations of party-building. However, faced with these natural and inevitable divergences, in many cases, an atmosphere of tension quickly sets in, and the prospect of splits contaminates the entire debate. Once a tactical divergence arises, the specter of division begins to loom.

In part of the left, this has come to be seen as natural. Marxists of the past had a different view. Trotsky explains: 

The emergence of factions is inevitable, even in the most mature and harmonious party, as soon as it extends its influence to new layers; due to the appearance of new issues; to abrupt changes that occur in the situation; to the possibility that the leadership may make mistakes, etc. [2]

Lenin held a similar opinion:

“The growth and extension of the revolutionary movement, its penetration into deeper and deeper strata of the various classes and social groups, make the constant birth (and this is good) of new trends and nuances necessary.” [3]

He adds that these are 

“nuances over which one can and should argue, but for which it would be absurd and childish to separate.” The struggle of nuances within the party is inevitable and necessary as long as it does not lead to anarchy and division, as long as it continues within the limits approved, by common agreement, by all comrades and members of the party. [4]

The Fraction-Party is a division-making machine

The prevailing concept of regime in much of the revolutionary left today leads to the formation of monolithic leaderships of the fraction-party type.

What does this mean? It means that every difference is considered inevitable to become a tendency, a tendency to become a fraction, and a fraction to become a split. It means that the boundaries of organizations are no longer defined by principles, strategy, and program but by secondary, often tactical, issues. Going alone or forming alliances in elections? How to intervene in new movements? Around these and other conjunctural issues, groupings begin to crystallize within organizations, which then engage in fierce struggles with each other. In the fractional conception, the emergence of tactical disagreements is seen as the emergence of another party project, leading those presenting these differences to be regarded as a danger – or even an enemy, albeit unconsciously – to the organization. Thus, breaking with those who have disagreements is seen as justifiable and even imperative.

This concept contains contradictions, as circumstances change and, with them, party politics. Therefore, if at first, the fraction-party seems to define itself according to a specific tactic, over time, the defining axis ceases to be tactic X or Y. It becomes the authority of a leadership from which politics and tactics emanate, seen as unquestionable. Thus, defining the party by tactics gradually transforms into defining the party by personal loyalty to a leadership or a group of leaders – sometimes just one. In this way, when a group of militants challenges the politics of the inner core of leaders, it is perceived as challenging the party itself and its reason for existence.

Permanent splits do not often arise from the abandonment of strategic concepts and a revolutionary perspective. Not even from tactical disagreements themselves. The central problem is the idea of an unchallengeable leadership that cannot be questioned. This idea does not necessarily arise from any material privileges that the leadership may have – just consider that this happens mostly in small organizations, where there are not even means to feed potential privileges. The tendency towards splits results, instead, from the notion that the directing core – and not the party’s program – is the guarantee of the organization’s survival, political correctness, and non-capitulation.

That’s why political debates quickly take the form of struggles between cadres, of personal fights. This happens because what is defended – or contested in many cases – are not the leaders’ ideas but their authority. The problem lies precisely in a conception where an organization unites not around ideas but around the authority of a handful of leaders, from which supposedly emanate the only “truly revolutionary” tactics.

The Fractional Methods

Narratives like “petty-bourgeois pressure vs. workers’ pressure” are used to justify fractional struggle and to defend (or attack) a particular leadership. Once a certain faction is labeled in these terms – petty-bourgeois, reformist, liquidationist, etc. – all methods become valid, as these comrades are supposedly now “enemies.” Lies, slander, distortion of political positions, or even the seizure of party resources and resorting to bourgeois justice are now employed. Anything goes. Due to these methods, trust relationships break down, militants become demoralized, and splits become almost inevitable. A trail of demoralization remains: nothing with a future can be built on this foundation.

This starts right from the way political debates are conducted. While some excesses may be understandable in oral discussions, they are not admissible in written form, where there is time to reflect. It is important to clarify that the tone of the debate is not a secondary matter. The heated and aggressive tone follows the logic of the Fraction-Party, aimed at portraying those who disagree with the leadership (or its majority) as enemies. It serves to present the exit door as the only option.

It is serious to caricature opponents’ positions, attributing statements they do not defend. Balancing the party’s activities to demonstrate that all problems result from the existence of disagreements or are the fault of dissenters is a way to fractionalize the party. Behind-the-scenes games and administrative maneuvers to gain more or less influence have the same result. However, all these methods are too common in many organizations.

Naturally accepting different opinions should be normal. It would be a sign of a healthy regime and political maturity, especially from the leadership. Viewing differences as synonymous with the conscious or unconscious destruction of the party falls into the chronic mistakes of much of the left in the past, be it of Trotskyist, Stalinist, anarchist, or even other origins. The result is well known.

So, how to unite revolutionaries?

Trotsky once said:

What is the Party? What is its cohesion? This cohesion arises from a common understanding of events and tasks, and it is this understanding that represents the party’s program. [5]

This point is of utmost importance. The unity of the anticapitalist left is not, and cannot be, guaranteed by maintaining a certain leadership at the helm of organizations. Nor is it the agreement among militants of a particular organization on specific tactics, as divergences in this area are normal and options can be taken democratically, respecting majorities and minorities, without the risk of divisions. The cement that can unite those who struggle is the programmatic agreement.

Organizations often tend to overly demarcate themselves based on tactical options – how to intervene in a particular struggle, which tactics to use in elections, the position on specific conjunctural matters – and, in doing so, lose sight of their true objectives. Even among those who claim to be more revolutionary, the horizon of the struggle against class enemies is sometimes lost, and the focus becomes the fight against the rest of the left – or even one faction of the party against another. This is presented as a way to “not capitulate to reformism,” but it actually shows that such organizations lack confidence in their programmatic and strategic solidity.

When there is solidity in class principles, clarity in the revolutionary and socialist strategy, and militant intervention in class struggles, confronting capital and its governments (rather than engaging in a constant battle against the rest of the left), the temptation of isolation diminishes, and the fractional disease is alleviated. “Vaccines” against capitulation are not needed when one believes in their own ideas. On the contrary, it is on the basis of these pillars that it becomes possible to unite anticapitalist militants from different backgrounds and experiences in increasingly larger organizations. Fractionalization and splits (although they can never be definitively eradicated, as they are inevitable in extreme situations) cease to be the norm. On the contrary, unity and even the union of different organizations, collectives, and even parties become a real possibility.

What can cement this path is, as we have already said, programmatic and strategic confluence. Along with a healthy party regime that accepts divergence, makes decisions democratically, and intervenes as united as possible outwardly, evaluating that intervention afterward.

The Marxist program is not a closed reality. It must be continuously discussed and updated in light of its classical foundations, past experiences, and above all, the study and analysis of the present. Thus, a socialist program for the 21st century cannot be found solely in the books of Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky, even though essential hints may emerge from their works. We must have the courage to think for ourselves and collectively engage in programmatic debates. In his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach [6], Marx meant not only to abandon a position of mere analysis and engage in militant intervention but also emphasized that the understanding of reality can only be achieved through active intervention in it. Revolutionary militancy can only develop a common program through collective political intervention.

Isolation blinds, and fractionalism diminishes revolutionary ambition – if consciousness is determined by existence, fractional militancy obscures strategic clarity. Regardless of our differences, class consciousness reminds us that the enemy is out there, and they are powerful.

Thus, the approach should not be to first develop a definitive program separately within each collective and then compare it with neighboring organizations. Instead, it is necessary to establish spaces for common debate and intervention, where agreements and confluences can be tested, and perhaps even mergers that result in stronger organizations can be explored.

It is possible to overcome the path of fractionalism and division. It is possible to unite anticapitalist activists in organizations that engage in politics on a larger scale. Marginality is not destiny, and far from being a virtue. Hence, uniting revolutionary activists from diverse backgrounds and experiences around a socialist program for the 21st century can be a reality. However, to achieve this, it is essential to completely abandon the conception of the party-fraction.


[1] Antonio Gramsci, “Italy and Spain” (https://www.marxists.org/portugues/gramsci/1921/03/11.htm)

[2] Leon Trotsky – “Trotskyism and the PSOP” in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938/39, 1st edition, pg 129

[3] (Oeuvres, tome 8, p. 161)

[4] Lenin – Collected Works, vol. 7, pg 320.

[5] Conversations with Trotsky on the Transitional Program;

[6] “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (from “Theses on Feuerbach” by Karl Marx)

Originally published in Semear o Futuro.