A note of preface
Like my document “An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents,” the following is a reprint of a piece first published in one of the ISO’s 2014 Pre-convention Bulletins — in this case, PCB #11, released on January 11. As I explain below, this particular piece is structured as a reply to a critique of the ISO Renewal Faction written by one of my then fellow Atlanta branch members. For reasons of courtesy, I have chosen to adjust the text here in order to avoid referencing this comrade by name. Where necessary, I simply refer to this individual as “the author.”
Notably, I had initially planned to publish this piece on Red Atlanta more than a month ago. At that time, however, I decided to hold out in order to let some of the tension set in motion by the bitter factional struggle subside. Now that some time has passed, I wanted to go ahead and publicly release this document, as I think it provides some worthwhile insights about the crisis within the ISO and — in addition — the nature of the current capitalist conjuncture.
Before beginning, let me first note that — over the past two months or so — I have come to reconsider some of the views that are expressed in this document. Notably, at one point in the piece, I present a version of an old ISO stock argument, which has been sardonically dubbed the “Big Bang Theory” of the class struggle. I summarize this argument in the body of the text as follows: “In order for a fundamental shift in class power in favor of workers to take place in the United States during the current period, it will require an outbreak of mass struggle of comparable magnitude to the upheaval of the 1930s.” While I still think that this observation has some merit, I’ve come to largely agree with a critique of this theory advanced by former ISO member Scott Jay in his September 29 essay, “A Critique of the International Socialist Organization.” As Scott implies, this outlook is loosely related to the ISO’s tendency to develop overinflated perspectives analyses. By connection, on a practical level, this outlook contributes to the propensity of ISO members to adopt an approach to movement work based on frenetic and — all too often — utterly aimless activism. As Scott notes, during his experience in the ISO, the “Big Bang Theory” tended to go hand-in-hand with “Running around after ‘anything that moves,’ any small struggle that presented itself as though it were some decisive turning point, recruiting anybody possible in a desperate effort to grow, with the expectation that this method would draw great fruits within years when a mass struggle presented itself[.]” In general, while such practices tend to mesh well with the needs of idealistic, young college students (the ISO’s traditional audience of preference, of course), they’re utterly incompatible with the lives of working-class adults.
Beyond this, over the past several months, I’ve also completely reconfigured my outlook about socialist party-building. While I don’t deal with this subject in much detail below, the analysis that I provide of certain sectarian proclivities on the part of the ISO differs from the way that I would likely chose to make this point today. For one thing, in my discussion of this matter, I make reference to an essay by the late Duncan Hallas, a member of the British Socialist Workers Party. If I were to write this essay today, however, then I wouldn’t be particularly inclined to look to the theoretical cannon of the IS Tradition in order to help make a point about sectarianism. Rather, I’d be far more likely to quote directly from The Communist Manifesto to make my case:
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
–Ben S, Atlanta
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This document is a response to “Critique of the Renewal Faction Documents,” contained within PCB #7. I will structure my rebuttal by briefly summarizing key points made by the document’s author and then responding to them in detail.
1.) In this document, the author asserts that the ISO Renewal Faction (of which I am an endorsing member) provides a “mechanical formulation for how ideas change.” The Renewal Faction, the author claims, does this by distorting Marxist theory to claim that human consciousness only changes as a result of action – not as a result of our lived experiences in general. In contrast to this, the author counters that, “Our daily lives, without any struggle, shape our ideas profoundly both the routines of the workplace and the ‘real material relationships’ we have outside of the workplace.” She goes on to imply that the formula presented by the Renewal Faction attributes the development of ideas solely to “the physical labor one engages in” and “collective action.”
This analysis distorts the Renewal Faction’s actual understanding of the development of consciousness. In reality, the Renewal Faction does not claim that consciousness only changes as a result of action. Nor do they deny the importance of general lived experience in altering people’s ideas. The real substance of the Renewal Faction’s argument is this: advances in working-class consciousness are the product of collective action – i.e. class struggle.
Significantly, the author’s distortion of the Renewal Faction’s understanding of consciousness appears to be – at least in part – the result of the group’s rhetorical emphasis on action as the force behind the development of class consciousness. Thus, author seems to be responding to the following passage, contained within the document, “The role of perspectives”:
The point is that for Marxists, it is not simply that consciousness arises from the situation in which people find themselves, but rather that human consciousness transforms through the process of engaging actively with the world. We learn by doing – that is, we do first, then extrapolate the lesson. In that sense, Marx really is saying, “action determines consciousness.”
This passage is used to explain the way that major shifts in consciousness – in particularly, the development of working-class consciousness – take place. The reason for this emphasis on action as opposed to experience stems from the Renewal Faction’s rebuttal of one particular argument that has, in recent years, become increasingly prominent within the ISO. This is the claim – summarized by the Renewal Faction – that “people radicalize in mass numbers and collectively, simply on the basis of the experience of racism or homophobia or bad bosses or speed-ups at work.” While the Renewal Faction agrees that these phenomenon do, at least to some degree, alter people’s ideas and consciousness, they argue that such experiences are extremely unlikely to produce radicalization:
Those experiences all put the individual in a position of passive object of the phenomenon. A worker getting bullied by a boss, or a person of color being harassed by police, may develop a level of anger toward the boss or the police, but only in exceptional circumstances will this spark generalize into a clear consciousness of oneself as a member of the working class, in opposition to the ruling class, and the need for collective class action against the rulers – even then, that individual as an individual is still presumably atomized and cut off from any possibility of collective action.
The author appears to be unaware of the Renewal Faction’s actual understanding of the difference between action and experience as factors in the development of consciousness. Thus, she bases her argument on refuting a straw-man. In contrast with her distorted portrayal of the Renewal Faction’s argument, the author asserts that “Our daily lives, without any struggle shape our ideas profoundly.” She goes on to provide a list of examples that are intended to prove that ideas can also “change through ‘life’” in addition to action. She cites the following hypothetical cases:
A couple who divorces because they can’t stop fighting about who does the laundry; the family that has hated in-laws who move in because there’s nowhere else for old people to survive; the rape survivor; the parolee.
I completely agree with the author that these experiences are bound to alter the ideas and the consciousness of the individual people affected. I’m certain that the rest of the Renewal Faction will also agree with this. But, the thing is, an alteration in ideas is not the same as a “radicalization” or a surge in class consciousness. What’s more, the specific cases cited above are, in actuality, extremely unlikely to lead to radical conclusions on the part of the individuals involved. For instance, a woman that splits up with her husband as a result of disagreements about laundry is not likely to instinctively conclude that women need to build a collective movement in order to challenge the inequitable distribution of household responsibilities under capitalism. In the vast majority of instances, such a divorce will lead primarily to personal conclusions: the divorcee will conclude that her former partner was lazy and misogynistic. This conclusion – while undoubtedly justified and largely true in most cases – is not indicative of a “radicalization.”
The key thing to keep in mind here is that people only develop radical conclusions on a mass, collective level through the experience of resisting oppression and exploitation on a mass, collective level. On an individual level, the experience of ever-rising oppression or exploitation is rarely enough to encourage workers or oppressed people to radicalize, even on an individual level.
What’s more, the experience of undergoing brutal oppression can actually lead people to become more timid and less prone to collective acts of resistance (i.e. less radical). Indeed, this is the reason why acts of oppression and brutality are useful to the ruling class in the first place: they tend to discourage people from resisting the status quo. In this way, under capitalism, oppression functions as a means to frighten people into submission and quiescence. This doesn’t mean that acts of oppression don’t often backfire and set off mass resistance. Indeed, with the right structural conditions – and with the right balance of class forces – this is often exactly what happens. Nonetheless, it needs to be understood that on an objective level, the very point of oppression under capitalism is to create the necessary social conditions required to ensure the continued accumulation of capital.
I could cite innumerable historical examples to prove this point. To cite just one, in the Jim Crow South, the phenomenon of lynching served as a means to psychologically terrorize the Black population. Essentially, acts of lynching sent a message to all Blacks: if you step out-of-line, you’re at risk of being brutally murdered and lynched, as well. Tragically, this despicable practice proved to be an extremely effective means of keeping people in their place for a prolonged period of time.
With this said, it is clear that rising rates of oppression and exploitation only tend to spark increased levels of radicalization and working-class consciousness when these phenomenon lead workers and oppressed people to engage in collective struggle. And people are only apt to engage in struggle when they see collective resistance as a viable way to improve their conditions. Thus, the specter of boosting working-class consciousness hinges on the viability of mass struggle. For this to change, it will require a shift in what Marxists have usually referred to as the balance of class forces.
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With this being said, there is, in fact, one particular segment of society that does tend to exhibit increased levels of radicalization as a result of passively perceiving the outbreak of economic crisis. This is the intelligentsia. The reason for this relates to the peculiar way this group tends to interact with society. As a result of their training, intellectuals perceive their primary social function as developing and presenting an understanding of society. On this basis, capitalist crises – which tend to expose the inherent contradictions and moral depravity intrinsic to capitalism – often lead many intellectuals to draw radical conclusions. This is especially true in cases when increased levels of oppression and exploitation affect intellectuals on a personal level.
It is imperative to note, however, that the type of radical consciousness that intellectuals tend to develop is fundamentally different than the type of consciousness that workers come to through the course of struggle. Most notably, in contrast to workers, intellectuals become radical as atomized individuals. This phenomenon is pointed out by Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky in his 1910 essay, “The Intelligentsia and Socialism”:
A worker comes to socialism as a part of a whole, along with his class, from which he has no prospect of escaping. He is even pleased with the feeling of his moral unity with the mass, which makes him more confident and stronger. The intellectual, however, comes to socialism, breaking his class umbilical cord as an individual, as a personality, and inevitably seeks to exert influence as an individual.
This insight helps to explain the “ideological radicalization” thesis that has become an increasingly common-sense assumption in the ISO since the onset of the Great Recession. To the extent that this is true, this process has been largely confined – in the United States, anyway – to academics, professional writers, journalists, college students, and recent college graduates. Significantly, one of the reasons why the current crisis is producing sharp levels of radicalization among this milieu relates to the wave of recent neoliberal attacks against public universities in general and university social science programs in particular. What’s more, the economic crisis has also led increasing numbers of recent college graduates to become proletarianized. This stems from the ongoing decline of well-paying white collar jobs as a percentage of the total U.S. workforce – a process that has dramatically accelerated since 2008. In previous periods, these types of jobs used to be available to large portions of the college-educated workforce. Over the past several decades – and particularly since 2008 – more and more college graduates have been pushed into the ranks of the low-wage service-sector economy. Through undergoing this process, many intellectually-minded former students have been compelled to draw radical conclusions – albeit on an individual, intellectual level. To speak for myself, this is my personal life story in a nutshell.
A recent article in New Statesman – a Left-wing British magazine – provides some insight into the radicalization that has taken hold of the intelligentsia of late. Written by Max Strasser, the article offers the following description of recent developments in New York City:
There is a revival of left-wing intellectual thinking on a level unseen since the 1960s. Young people are starting magazines and engaging in serious, substantial critique of the status quo. In addition to The New Inquiry there is Jacobin, “a magazine of culture and polemic” launched in late 2010 with an avowedly socialist perspective. Dissent, a socialist journal founded in 1953 has seen a revival, with a new crop of young staff. The hip literary magazine n+1 has also taken a decidedly political turn in recent years. And while many people launch publishing projects with earnest enthusiasm only to see them fail quickly, this new crop of journals seems to have enjoyed unprecedented success. At the same time, a new cohort of journalists has emerged, young and enterprising reporters devoted to covering labour, poverty and inequality, and they see interest from the old guard of left-liberal magazines peaking.
In general, the growth of a Left-wing intelligentsia should be seen by the revolutionary Left as an extremely important development. It should not, however, be conflated with a society-wide “ideological radicalization.”
2.) The author argues that the Renewal Faction’s understanding of the relationship between action and consciousness leads to a vision for social change that is profoundly pessimistic. On this basis, she insists that the Renewal Faction fails to adequately assess “the question of how struggle ever begins.” The author argues that, “If workers only struggle when they are familiar with struggle, if they only form strong organizations having already raised their own expectations and consciousness, then the existence of struggle is impossible.” In other words, if prior experience in struggle is a prerequisite for future struggles, then how does this cycle begin in the first place? In this way, the author claims that the Renewal Faction’s analysis implies that the outbreak of struggle will never take place.
As the Renewal Faction understands it, the development of class consciousness requires workers to come to the conclusion that it is in their interest to fight back as a group. In order for this to happen, groups of workers tend to have to go through the experience of engaging in collective struggles – in particular, collective struggles that are successful in bringing about real-world gains. What’s more, in order for such advances in consciousness to be sustainable, they have to be consolidated in the form of class organization. (It goes without saying that the fundamental form of working-class organization is the trade union.) Crucially, increased class organization allows for greater latitude in terms of working-class action and working-class consciousness. Through this process, workers can come to realize their interests as a class. The key thing to understand here is that the act of engaging in class struggle necessarily precedes the growth of class-conscious ideas – at least on a mass level. This conforms with Marx’s understanding of epistemology. As summarized by the Renewal Faction, “We learn by doing – that is, we do first, then extrapolate the lesson.” On this basis, only through the process of advancing their interests through struggle will workers develop “clear consciousness of [themselves] as a member of the working class, in opposition to the ruling class, and the need for collective class action against the rulers.”
With this said, it is important to note that the existence of class struggle is not dependent on the pre-facto existence of working-class consciousness. In cases where workers are already class conscious and have strong organizations to back them, then they’re far more likely to engage in struggle in an effective and coordinated way. But this doesn’t mean that workers that lack a history or knowledge of class struggle are incapable of collective resistance. This point is humorously summarized by Hal Draper in the second of volume of Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution:
To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to “believe in” the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane. … The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and aspirations, not insofar as it is told about struggle by Marxists. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so.
But, as already noted, in order for struggles to lead to major breakthroughs in terms of consciousness, they must be successful – at least to some extent – in advancing the collective interests of workers. Furthermore, short term gains in consciousness must be consolidated through the establishment of class organization in order have a lasting effect. In this way, workers are able to alter the balance of class forces.
This theoretical understanding helps to explain the pitiful state of working-class consciousness and political development in the United States during the current period. Over the past forty years, workers have experienced a dramatic decline in organizational strength. This is the product of an ongoing employers’ offensive, which began to take shape in the 1970s in response to the outbreak of a major crisis in the international capitalist economy. The primary aim of this initiative has been to reduce the living standards of workers and weaken trade union power. As a result of the ongoing ruling-class offensive, union density in the United States has been driven down to historically low levels. Without union backing, workers have been systematically discouraged from taking the risk of entering into struggle with their employers. Naturally, low-levels of class struggle and low-levels of class organization have served to dramatically circumscribe the development of class consciousness. With only limited, scattered instances of collective struggle over the past three decades, most workers have not had the necessary experience to develop conceptions of their collective interests as workers. This process has created something of a positive feedback loop; the demise of trade union power has led to a decline in struggle, which – in turn – has reinforced the further atrophy of trade union power.
As it stands today, it’s not clear how this process will come to an end. Historically, dramatic shifts in class power have tended to come about during relatively brief periods of time, characterized by outbreaks of mass struggle. This is the essence of Lenin’s famous saying that “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.” Indeed, to give one historical example, the balance of class forces that existed in the United States during the thirty-year period following World War II was largely the product of a series of dramatic struggles waged from 1934 to 1938. Following this, the structure of post-war labor relations was then solidified during the course of World War II – a process facilitated by the bureaucratization of the trade union movement.
In order for a fundamental shift in class power in favor of workers to take place in the United States during the current period, it will require an outbreak of mass struggle of comparable magnitude to the upheaval of the 1930s. Only a mass working-class movement will be able to burst through the many political, legal, and social barriers that are currently hindering the further development of class struggle and class organization in the United States. If historical precedent is any example, such a development will require the involvement of Leftists and radicals of all stripes. This was the case of the mass struggles of the 1930s, where socialists, Communists, and various other radicals played the pivotal role in building working-class organizations and leading mass struggles.
The documents presented by the ISO Renewal Faction approach the question of movement work by emphasizing the need to develop a strategy to break through the structural gridlock imposed by the current balance of class forces. In the “Organizational perspectives” document, the Renewal Faction calls for the development of a program designed to orient the ISO to “key economic sectors and workplaces, social strata, and geographic locations… where we expect the contradictions of capitalism to be most ripe for the development of class struggle.” The point of such a program would be to develop an effective strategy, aimed at pushing the class struggle forward. In so doing, this would also put the ISO in the position to build itself and the Left in general.
3.) The author argues that the ISO Renewal Faction’s pessimistic theoretical understanding of the relation between consciousness and struggle has practical implications for revolutionary socialists. This understanding, she claims, “resigns those of us who want revolutionary change to passivity.”
As already noted, the Renewal Faction’s understanding of the relationship between ideas and activity is not pessimistic. Rather, it’s an assessment grounded in a Marxist understanding of class struggle. Such a theoretical basis provides for the formulation of a practical program aimed at pushing the class struggle forward.
Beyond her claim that the ISO’s vision of struggle is “a recipe for passivity,” the author also attempts to disparage the Renewal Faction in a more deceptive manner. In several instances throughout the document, she attempts to depict the Renewal Faction as a group of jaded arm-chair intellectuals. Most ridiculously, at one point in her document, the author states that the Renewal Faction puts “forward the idea that we should be focusing on ‘theoretical capital’ and an increased emphasis on reading our leaders’ meeting minutes and filling out regional organizer performance evaluations.” This is an utter distortion of the actual practical program advanced by the Renewal Faction. Sadly, I suspect that the author was well aware of the erroneous and deceptive nature of this assertion when she wrote her document.
With this said, it is true that the Renewal Faction does, in fact, reject a certain type of movement work: namely, the variety of aimless, anti-strategic movementism that has characterized much of the ISO’s participation in struggles over the past several years. As the Renewal Faction summarizes, the ISO’s approach to movement work has become detached from our ultimate goal of workers’ revolution. Rather than consciously participating in and conducting practical work that’s intended to push the struggle forward and set increased numbers of working-class people in motion, we’ve adopted a strategy of orienting to whatever movements appear at any given time without any insight into how our participation in these struggles relates to our goals as an organization. On this basis, we’ve tended to approach these movements in an utterly uncritical way. As the Renewal Faction puts it, we “emphasize the possibilities inherent in every political moment while downplaying the real challenges.” Underlining this problem is the group’s understanding of the function of movement work in general. Rather than conceiving our role in participating in movements as helping to consciously drive the class struggle forward, we tend to approach it with two primary goals: a.) recruiting movement participants to join the organization and b.) gaining practical experience in order to prepare ourselves for future struggles.
The detachment of our short-term movement work from our long-term goals as an organization has dovetailed with a theoretical understanding that tends to reduce class struggle to a largely spontaneous phenomenon. As near as I can tell, many people in the organization have come to believe that the next mass upturn in class struggle will take place as a result of a sudden and unexpected burst of popular anger – a development that is likely to be set in motion by an ongoing process of “ideological radicalization.” Such a view removes the role of conscious action by revolutionaries and radicals in helping to lay the organizational groundwork for “upsurges” in working-class struggle.
The author’s document actually provides a number of clear examples of the problematic approach that has come to dominate much of the ISO’s movement work in recent years. To begin with, in describing her own personal experience as a movement activist and ISO member, the author provides an apt summary of the organization’s frequently directionless and anti-strategic mode of operating. True to form, the author admits that – in the past – this approach to struggle has led her to “burn out.” She notes that, “I swore I was too stubborn to burn out. It took me just less than a year of non-stop feverish activity to collapse.”
Based on this experience, the author claims to have learned that burnout is less likely when participation in movement work is integrated with “the party building project.” In such circumstances, “the end of the movement is less disorienting and your comrades can remind you of the long term, give you some… perspective.” Apparently, the author now sees the primary purpose of the ISO’s participation in movement struggles as being party building – or, in more concrete terms, recruiting new contacts to the ISO. At one point in the document she calls for placing “primacy… on growing the small numbers of revolutionaries.” At the same time, the author downplays the viability of participating in movements as a means of pushing the class struggle forward. She writes that, “Although we very much hope to contribute ideas and argue politics that can help the struggle win, our size and scope inhibits our ability to do this.” In this same vein, the author goes on to critique the Renewal Faction for the lack of focus it places upon “the role of building our organizations within and as part of small struggles.” The Renewal Faction, she argues, is excessively oriented toward pushing the movement forward and lacks a focus on insular party-building. As she puts it, the Renewal Faction’s “eyes [are] on the reform, not on the party-building process.”
The author’s separation of the goal of winning “reforms” from the “party-building process” here is extremely problematic. In general, the tendency to place the goal of party-building above the goal of advancing the class struggle is congruent with the definition of sectarianism as traditionally understood within the International Socialist Tendency. As outlined in a 1985 article by Duncan Hallas, the defining feature of a sect is the tendency to justify its existence in terms that are detached from “the course of the development of the real class struggle and the development of class consciousness.” To place party-building and internal growth as the central goal of the ISO is to reduce the organization to an idealistic sect, which sees its primary function as self-expansion. In reality, if the ISO is ever to expand in a meaningful way and make good on its party-building aspirations, it will have to play a useful role in pushing the class struggle forward. This is the only way for the ISO – or, for that matter, any other small group of revolutionary socialists – to prove its worth to the working class and convince substantial numbers of militants to join the Party.
The author’s emphasis on the “primacy” of party-building leads her to provide a principled defense of the ISO’s tendency to approach movement work on the basis of unjustified optimism and voluntaristic zeal. Essentially, the author argues that such an approach is useful because it is attractive and appealing to novice movement participants:
Emphasizing the possibilities attracts the right sort of political element to the ISO within these frail and transient social movements of the day. These are the people who’d been hoping for a way to fight back. They are raw, angry, and “really want to tear the head off capitalism.” Making a conscious decision to mirror that optimism is not to pretend that the struggle will be up up and away but to solidarize with the sentiment of our periphery.
In this way, the author thinks that the ISO should mimic the outlook of movement novices because we want them to like us! This is intended as a means of advancing the ISO’s central goal of party-building.
There are a number of reasons why this formulation is problematic. Firstly, such a strategy is – in actuality – not likely to lead to any long-term gains in terms of membership. In cases where the ISO is able to win an audience of “raw, angry” movement participants on the basis of a shared allegiance to unfounded optimism, then these contacts are bound to be discouraged when they realize that the ISO is filled with hot air. As I see it, the ISO would be far better served by adopting a strategy that is aimed, above all else, at pushing the class struggle forward. Such an approach would allow the ISO to prove in praxis that we have the politics capable of advancing the movement. In so doing, we’d be able to boost the appeal of the organization in the eyes of serious, dedicated movement activists. Beyond this, the second shortcoming of the author’s strategy of “emphasizing the possibilities” in order to appeal to movement novices is that such an approach has the potential to be detrimental to the interests of the movement. For one thing, a strategy based on mirroring the outlook of “raw, angry [militants that] ‘really want to tear the head off capitalism’” sounds like a surefire recipe for ultra-Leftism.
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1. Ben S, “An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents,” External Bulletin, February 25, 2014. Ben S, “Response to [name omitted]’s ‘Critique of the Renewal Faction Documents,” Pre-convention Bulletin #11, January 21, 2013.
4.ISO Renewal Faction, “The role of perspectives,” External Bulletin, November 26, 2013. (Link)
7. Leon Trotsky, “The Intelligentsia and Socialism,” 1910, published online at the Marxist Internet Archive. (Link)
8. Max Strasser, “Who are the new socialist wunderkinds of American?” New Statesmen, November 9, 2013. (Link)
11. ISO Renewal Faction, “Organizational perspectives,” External Bulletin, November 26, 2013. (Link)
13. The author’s understanding of class struggle as a spontaneous phenomenon is most clearly evidenced in a passing comment contained in her description of the importance of a mass revolutionary Party in helping to push a revolutionary situation to victory. In the course of making this argument, the author ponders, “How can you have a successful overthrow of the profit system by people who two months ago thought Sarah Palin was awesome?”
14. Duncan Hallas, “What is sectarianism?” in Party and Class (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003), 94. [The ISO republished Hallas’s essay in Socialist Worker on January 24, just three days after the release of PCB #7. — Ben S]