Moving from religion to politics, in Slezkine’s The House of Government, basically entails moving the search for transcendence, the negotiation of the gap between the real and the ideal, from the difference between the profane and the sacred to the difference between the status quo and some projected (imagined) improvement upon the existing state of affairs. Institutional religion—the church—represents the more quietist approach: the acceptance of the imperfection of the fallen world along with the promise of a better world elsewhere coupled with structures and hierarchies meant to insure stability, peace, and order in the imperfect here and now. The compromises of the institutional church are always contested by impatient visionaries who long, with equal fervor, to create a utopian now and to punish those who stand in the way of achieving that utopia.
For Slezkine, the utopians organize themselves into “sects.” Following the work of Ernst Troeltsch, “the distinction between a church and a sect” can be stated as follows: “a church is an institution one is born into. . . . [A] sect [is] a group of believers radically opposed to the corrupt world, dedicated to the dispossessed, and composed of voluntary members who had undergone a personal conversion and shared a strong sense of chosenness, exclusiveness, ethical austerity, and social egalitarianism” (93). In Slekzine’s philosophy of history (I can use no other term for his wild—and world-weary—identification of a pattern he thinks repeats itself over and over) “the history of the new order [humanist post-Christian polities], like that of the old one [Christianity prior to the Reformation], is a story of routinization and compromise punctuated by sectarian attempts to restore the original promise” (107). Sectarians scorn compromise and institutions, are often galvanized into action by a charismatic leader, and embrace violence in the name of the good. When not fighting the reprobate, they are constantly in-fighting in order to insure that only the absolutely pure are members of the sect.
If revolutionaries are best understood as sectarians, Selkzine’s model explains a) their trust in and non-distaste [to use a weird double negative] of violence; b) their suspicion of and hence ineptitude in establishing institutions; c) their difficulty in sustaining trust and working, cooperative relationships once the movement grows beyond a “knowable community” (i.e. they are very bad at “imagined communities” because committed to the intense relationships of a shared oppositional—and doctrinally pure—set of beliefs); and d) their impatience with compromise and their fury when their utopian vision does not materialize (generating the frantic search for people to blame for that failure).
This, of course, is another way of saying that it is easier to be in opposition than in power. It seems fair to say that the Republican Party has become more and more sect-like over the past thirty years. Certainly it is much more prone to expel members who don’t toe the line (RINOs), and is hostile to compromise and to institutional structures/norms. Its contempt for the routines of governance makes it just about incapable of governing; it has ground legislative activity to an almost complete halt, while rendering federal bureaucracies increasingly inept. As many have noted, today’s Republican Party is not conservative; it is revolutionary reactionary. It is out to destroy, not to conserve.
The oddity is that its destructive urges are almost entirely negative. It is not driven by a positive vision, but mostly by a hatred of the elites it associates with anti-American values, tastes, and snobbishness. Yes, there is nostalgia for a certain kind of small-town American culture that was built on racial exclusion and post-War prosperity. But there is no serious—or even non-serious visionary—platform for reestablishing that world. Empty slogans suffice if the joys of hatred are allowed free expression. It really is as if the losers in this neoliberal universe will be content if given free rein to express the animus—most fully expressed in the death threats they love to send to people, but more mildly expressed in the various statements now deemed unacceptable in polite discourse—they feel toward the non-whites and the professional elites they cannot avoid in today’s business world and public sphere. In their heart of hearts, undoubtedly there are true believers who think deporting all the immigrants is a possibility, but surely they are a small minority of those who vote Republican. Similarly, those same voters know that the manufacturing jobs are not coming back.
Contrasted to sects (in Slekzine’s view) are parties: “Parties are usually described as associations that seek power within a given society (or, in Max Weber’s definition, ‘secure power within an organization for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members’) (58). The key difference here is that the party accepts, has a huge amount invested in, the current institutional and political order. To that extent, parties are all conservative; they seek to preserve the current system—and are oriented to gaining power with that system as the means toward furthering the party’s particular ends. That’s why parties are the “loyal opposition”; they are not revolutionary, but are partners with other parties in the preservation of the current order.
Thus, today’s Republican Party seems to exist in some kind of uneasy (unsustainable?) tension between being a party and a sect. It quite obviously seeks power to gain advantages for its active members—the donor class to which it delivers the benefits of tax cuts and deregulation etc. But its appeal to its non-donor class voters is sectarian—and the result is that its elected officials include true believers who embody the no compromise hostility to institutional forms that is a large part of the party’s current brand. These radicals will cheerfully have the government default on its debts (to take one example) and are constantly at odds with the more staid party functionaries who are only interested in power within the current system (Mitch McConnell being the epitome of this kind of politician).
Because of its use of sectarian tactics (tactics which someone like McConnell thinks he can keep safely under control), the Republicans have clearly abetted (by authorizing) various kinds of hate crimes and violence, even as they have given us an authoritarian, charismatic President. The Party has moved far enough toward being a sect that its ability to actually govern is more than questionable, even as its attacks (voter suppression, harassment—and worse—of immigrants) upon outsiders to its “America” increase in ferocity.
All that said, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a sectarian left. Sects make things happen in the world; I have just finished reading Maud Gonne’s autobiography (of which more in future posts) and she, as well as Slekzine, tells a tale featuring dedicated conspirators, people spending their whole lifetimes committed to a cause of radical change. A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are American examples. In all these cases, from the 400 or so “Old Bolsheviks” to the 400 or so dedicated Irish nationalists to the 400 or so “race warriors” in the US, mountains were eventually moved. If there exists such networks in the contemporary world, I don’t know of them. Yes, we have the rightist militias. But what do we have on the left: the respectable organizations, the ACLU and the like, fine in their own way, but very much within the established institutional order.
What I guess I am saying is that I want sectarian dedication, single-mindedness and energy, without sectarian violence and constant in-fighting. After all, both Bolsheviks and the Irish revolutionaries, once they had succeeded in overthrowing the existing system, ended up fighting against one another. It is shocking—at least to me—to read anti-Treaty documents in 1922 that casually refer to the Free State soldiers and officials as “the enemy” when those numbered in “the enemy” were one’s comrades in the fight against the British in 1921. Yes, there was some hesitation at the start of the Irish Civil War about killing one’s friends and erstwhile comrades, but that hesitation disappeared with frightening, sickening, rapidity.
Maybe—and just maybe because I may be wildly over-idealizing here—one key factor (hardly the only one) involves careers. Today’s Republican Party reactionary revolutionaries can safely attack governmental/legal/political institutions because they are not threatening (in fact see themselves as reinforcing and protecting) the institutional structures of American capitalism. And it is well documented, there in plain sight for any operative to see, that the right has sinecures (in the think tanks, in lobbying organizations, increasingly in academia, etc.) readily available for those who do the party’s work. That’s one way of saying that the Republicans are between a party and a sect; they are attached to an existing structure that provides a ladder to climb, a route to riches, recognition, and security. It is just that that structure is, they like to believe, non-political, the “free market,” and thus enables a no-holds-barred hostility to political institutions.
The revolutionaries of the left—Lenin, Gandhi, Rustin—had no such safe perch, or secure position at which to aim. They were fully on the outside, existing in a no man’s land where recognition, money, and eventual success were never guaranteed and were (for years) withheld. They were stepping out into a void with no safety net. As I say, maybe I am wrong here, guilty of over-idealizing. I am hardly claiming these men did not have their faults—their vanities and their self-indulgences. But they did not exist within any kind of established institutional order that provided security. Only the intense relations within the sect offered some form of support.
Am I saying that existence within institutions stands in the way of being a true advocate for change? Certainly, concern for the preservation of one’s own slot, one’s own career, for the sources of one’s own income and status, are deterrents to devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a transformation of existing conditions.
I don’t see where the kind of sect, the kind of movement that enabled Lenin, Gandhi and Rustin to live almost completely outside existing political, economic, and social setups, exists on the left today. The Bohemian outside appears to have disappeared. Life in the US has become so expensive, especially housing costs, that the counter-cultural enclaves such as Brooklyn or the Bay Area are the playgrounds of the rich now. At the same time, increased surveillance (both physical and digital) gives a revolutionary counter-culture much less room in which to maneuver.
There is also the left’s almost universal repudiation of violence (the overblown existence of the anti-fa “movement” notwithstanding). Maybe it is hard to have a sect without some kind of commitment to violence. (I want to consider that idea in subsequent posts.)
Add the fact that being a sectarian is tedious. Mostly what the old Bolsheviks did was read, write, and have endless meetings—for which they then spent long stretches of time in prison. The hoped-for moment of transformation is endlessly postponed. How energy, passion, and hope are sustained over such long periods of time is a mystery and a miracle, much to be admired.
Maud Gonne’s life has much to offer in thinking about such issues. So I will go there next