Critical thoughts about Draper’s “micro-sect”

March 29, 2019

The crisis in the ISO has generated a lot of interest in various writings about the challenges of building small revolutionary organizations, including a couple articles by Hal Draper, who was a theoretical leader of the International Socialist tradition. Here, brian bean offers a critical appraisal of Draper’s contributions to this debate.

THE RECENT situation in the ISO has rightfully produced a trenchant criticism of what has been termed the “micro-party” form of revolutionary socialist organization.

One of the pieces that has been dusted off and heralded as affording valuable insight is Hal Draper’s 1973 essay “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect.” This and the similar, though less known, 1971 “Toward a New Beginning — On Another Road” reflect Draper’s polemics against the group that he helped form — the International Socialists (IS) — which he left in 1971 as part of a small split that became the International Socialist Committee (ISC).

Undoubtedly, one reason that these essays are being shared is that the author is one of the founders of the IS and a theoretical leader of the tradition, imbuing his criticism with particular force. “Even your (or our) founder broke from this project, so it must be wrong” is what seems to be implied.

While much of Draper’s work is incredibly important,[1] I think “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” has flaws as an analytical piece and is less helpful than its seeming popularity would reflect.

My argument is not intended as a defense of the micro-party, which should be a matter of debate that — I hope — is enriched by our reflections on the ISO. One such piece that I think is more helpful than Draper’s is David McNally’s 2009 essay “The Period, The Party, and The Next Left.” But it’s worth noting that McNally’s piece largely presents a negative case and does not attempt to present a “recipe” for an alternative.

What’s good

Draper’s description of an atomized far left — DSA notwithstanding — sadly still resonates today. He depicts a tangle of orthodox Trotsky sects of “super sophistication in Marxism and futility in practices” and Maoist/Stalinist groups that have an “amnesia,” “ignorance” and “primitivism” of Marxism and political practice. His primary critique is that any left organization that “counterposes” its “programmatic points against the real movement of the workers in the class” is a sect.

This is a valuable insight, and Draper’s description of the way in which adherence to “program” can lead groups to define themselves primarily in terms of how they differentiate themselves from the working-class movement as opposed to how they can try to work to further working class self-activity is illuminating.

The focus on self-activity, on the emancipation of the working class being carried out by the working class itself, exemplifies the best of the tradition of “socialism from below.”

Additionally, his anatomy — in the lesser read “Toward A New Beginning” — of the dangers of an organizational method of the “small mass party” acting “as if“ it was already that mass party is salient and should be a caveat for any left organization.[2]

This critical insight of Draper’s is not completely unique. This same emphasis on working to break out of the sterile orthodoxy of “toy Bolshevism” also exemplifies some of the best work of the British IS, later the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

Tony Cliff’s “Trotsky on substitutionism” is one such work where he criticizes the “leadership shown by small sects as ‘blackboard socialism’ which didactic methods take the place of participation in struggle.”[3] He counterposes this with an organization that “conducts a dialogue” and “learns from the experience of the mass movement.”

Duncan Hallas’ work also continually grapples with this. In Hallas’ “Sectarianism”, he writes:

Sectarians, for Marx and Engels, were those who created “utopias,” abstract schemes derived from supposed general principles, to which people were to be won by persuasion and example — co-operative “islands of socialism” and suchlike — as opposed to the Marxist emphasis on the real movement, the actual class struggle. It was with this in mind that Marx wrote: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its point of honor not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement.” (The emphasis is Marx’s own.)

This dynamic, of aversion to what Hallas calls “program fetishism” and “building the leadership,” was also being theorized in the late 1960s and 1970s in a different context that attempted to articulate revolutionary organization in a non-sectarian manner, holding the primary importance of the self-activity of the working class as the ultimate requirement for building a socialist movement.

There is a humility to these writings that are an important revolutionary attribute. Small groups pretending to be today’s equivalent of the Bolsheviks are both arrogant and pitiful. Draper’s article shares this humility, and while there are certainly reasons to be critical of the trajectory of the British IS/SWP, I think that there is much more to be explored without what I think is Draper’s drastic overcorrection.

As Draper begins to lay out his vision for how to avoid the pitfalls of the micro-sect, he puts forward two arguments against two possible solutions.

The first is that a unity of sects, what I would call a “regroupment-first” model, is not the answer, and in this, I agree wholeheartedly with Draper. The second argument Draper takes on is against “broad tent” organizations. Draper argues that even if groups organize around a “minimum socialist (or radical) basis on which ‘everyone’ can agree,” even if it be “abstract socialism,” that is still too much of a differentiation from the working-class movement.

By this definition, even groups like DSA (not sure at what numerical threshold Draper would discontinue his sect definition) and indeed any organization based on political ideas in social movements and the union struggle fail, in Draper’s opinion.

While the questions he asks are good ones (and are also grappled with elsewhere in the International Socialist tradition), one must still ask what is the solution to this dilemma — unless one is content with complete liquidation and the unimportance of socialist ideas. This brings us to what Draper advocates in his conclusion.

What is not good

For Draper, those interested in building a mass socialist party without replicating the errors of the micro-sect should group themselves around a “political center.” Draper argues that individual socialist militants should organize where they are and try to organize informal “socialist circles” around some kind of publication.

In my opinion, however, this solution is woefully inadequate, and this greatly detracts from the usefulness of Draper’s critiques.

Firstly, there is the historical context that is important to note. When Draper was first writing these pieces arguing that “micro-sects” would de facto fail to engage with building a worker’s movement, the IS was just beginning to form in 1969 and was composed of several divergent ideological forms that took almost three years to sort out.

However, in 1974 — one year after publication of “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” — the IS in the United States was beginning to engage in some of its most effective and important trade union work, including the building of rank-and-file movements and caucuses around the country.

Groupings such as Teamsters for Democratic Union came from this activity, and this was a part of a surge of labor activity that culminated in 1974 in highest number of strikes since the Second World War.

In the UK, the IS/SWP from 1971 through 1974 was similarly making a turn, participating in and building a nascent shop stewards movement. The IS/SWP initiated factory branches, recruited worker militants, deepening its implantation in the trade union movement, and expanding readership of its publication.

Meanwhile, the ISC — Draper’s side of the split from the IS — turned out to be a flop, and it is barely a footnote to history.

So at the same time that Draper condemned the potential for small socialist groups to break out of their isolation, a couple actually took modest steps in that direction, managing to positively engage in building a rank-and-file movement of militant workers.

The flip side of this is that Draper perhaps had some prescience about the period of radicalization hitting its peak in 1968-69. Neoliberalism would rear its head just a decade later, and the downturn in struggle was just around the corner. Both of these groups would go on to encounter difficulties and make significant political errors as the overall climate for revolutionary groups became much more challenging.

So while these two organizations had their shortcoming, categorizing them as irrelevant sects does not exactly describe them in their totality; meanwhile, Draper’s own attempt at building a “political center” was failing.

Draper’s approach seems very propagandistic organizationally at a point in time in which it was proven that revolutionary groups could play modest activist roles in building movements. The best ideas can’t substitute for organization.

Secondly, one can see that Draper’s model has not passed the test of time. The examples of a “political center” that Draper hoped would train and cohere a new socialist movement included the journals Monthly Review and Dissent. Draper hoped that publications such as these could serve as the nuclei around which informal socialist circles could be organized.[4]

Needless to say, it’s difficult to sustain the idea that the core of the new socialist movement has come from publications such as these. Additionally, Draper makes the argument that the “sect” model makes it more difficult to keep the socialist movement independent of the Democrats.

In the intervening decades, without organization to help cohere a core of independent politics, publications like these have generally succumbed to the swampiness around the Democratic Party. Though they may offer critiques of the party, various authors take a multitude of positions around the various strategies that focus on reforming, taking over, or influencing the Democratic Party through an inside-out strategy.

One could make the argument that the more recent success of Jacobin might be the best example of what Draper argued. However, one cannot separate the effect of Jacobin from the organization of the Democratic Socialists of America.

This problematizes the seeming ease of the “make a journal” approach of the political center that Draper advocates. A membership organization that can be a “mutual center of training and debate,” as Hallas calls it, is the level of organization required to be able to actively combat the fact that the dominant ideas of any age are those of the ruling class. A high level of organization is required to be combat — even ideologically — these dominant ideas that are perpetually generated and highly funded by our class enemies.

Lastly, there’s the problem of a hypothetical “political center” anchored by a publication without some kind of organization connected to it. Draper places the emphasis on an editorial board to give shape to the outlook of the political center.

But a publication independent of any organization means that these editors are an unelected, unaccountable body of people in charge of a set of ideas that then in turn informs all these informal socialist circles.

Obviously, a good publication can reflect lively debate among its readership, but Draper’s opposition to any kind of political organization means that he imbues the editorial board with unelected authority while the socialist militants grouped around the publication, who per Draper’s prescription have no say over the publication, should go out and build reading groups around a publication they have no control over.

Draper’s solution to building a “political center” is a flimsy solution to a real challenge. The questions he is trying to grapple with are indeed substantial ones, which in my opinion the IS tradition at its best has attempted to tackle. It is clear that the question of the method of the “micro-party” needs to be further explored, and yet I find that Draper’s piece is a false lead.

There is much more theoretical work that can be done, and the David McNally piece and some of the pieces from the British SWP in the Haymarket volume Party and Class provide a better starting point. Additionally, the documents generated by the debate about democratic centralism in the British IS in 1968 are fascinating.

IS (U.S.) member Sam Farber’s critical analysis of the British IS in 1973 is also worth a read. The split documents of the 1977 split that created the ISO in the U.S. are also instructive in many ways, especially the letter to the IS (U.S.) from the IS (UK) central committee (drafted by Hallas and, I think, unavailable online). Paul Le Blanc too recently penned some reflections.

All this is to say that the left must engage in some serious political and theoretical work to grapple further with the question of organization and that Draper’s late work is less helpful in this task.

But wrestling with these questions is essential, and this wrestling must be related to an analysis of the current moment with all of the challenges and opportunities it presents us with today. Ambiguity and abstraction will not serve us well in this process.


1. Most notably his multi-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution and the essays “Two Souls of Socialism,” “Who’s Going To Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?,” “The Mind of Clark Kerr,” “ABC of National Liberation Movements,” Draper’s writings on free speech, among others too numerous to mention.
2. I believe that the conception of the “small mass revolutionary party” came from Max Shachtman.
3. Cliff, in my opinion, is a highly contradictory figure. On the one hand, he exemplified the “small mass party” approach I am critiquing in his three-volume political biography of Lenin that equated in toto the building of a small propaganda group with that of a revolutionary party. On the other hand, his work also exuded a focus on self-emancipation in which he is often startlingly clear. This no doubt comes from both his attention to Lenin, his early Luxemburg-ism, and the influence of the libertarian socialist Cornelius Castoriadis’ Socialisme ou Barbarie group.
4. Draper’s history is dodgy as well. In “Anatomy of a Micro-Sect,” he holds the newspaper that Lenin edited — Iskra — as a positive example but does not mention that Iskra was a publication of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which had a program and definitely did not have a mass base in Russia. The party conferences elected the editorial board.