The sect and working class lifestyle, or why intellectuals should know their place

February 7, 2009 at 3:48 pm (class, Jack Haslam, left, Marxism, sectarianism, socialism, unions, workers) ()

Reprinted below is a talk given in October 1970 by the American Socialist Hal Draper. The purpose of putting this in broader circulation at the present time is because it highlights some issues that are of relevance to the refinery strikes. It sheds light on why much of the organised left either  failed completely to make sense of the recent refinery strikes, or were caught with their pants down. Draper draws attention both to the question of the social compositon of the left, and on the related issues of the place workers occupy in these organisations and how these bodies conceive of what it is they are trying to build.

 Independent class action

Let’s go back to the central idea of Marxism. That was that the job of the socialist vanguard is to help to get the working class moving as a class, independently. That statement is very carefully limited not to say too much but to say just enough. This does not mean moving in a revolutionary action. It does not mean moving, necessarily, on a socialist basis. It just means moving on its independent class basis – moving on its own level, not yours or mine.

Now here is where the problem for socialist sects comes in, because the level of the working class is always, until a late stage, unsatisfactory to you and me. Therefore, it also always means all kinds of horror stories about how unsatisfactory the state of affairs is. It involves the problem of what has been the great failure of socialist movements: that is, the inability of the sect to bridge these two levels – the level that the working class is moving on, and the level that the sect is thinking on.

On the one hand, you have socialists who bridge the gap by driving right across it and over to the other side, losing themselves (and their socialist ideas) in the mass movement. This has been a very popular thing to settle for, and it is one way of solving the problem personally.

On the other hand, you have the absolutely natural reaction which would make it impossible for that to happen: Avoid all temptation to lose yourself in the mass movement by keeping as far away from it as possible. That guarantees it.

The sect guards against the first possibility by counterposing its own very fine ideas to the actual mass movement of the class, and it remains a sect. Marx and Engels had much to say on the problems of sects that existed in their time.

The chronic problem becomes acute when the socialist sect arises as a congregation of intellectuals who have, to begin with, no organic connection with the working class at all. This congregation of intellectuals has the additional problem of changing itself before it can change anything else. It is not rare for socialist groups to begin as congregations of intellectuals. Marx and Engels were very sensitive to the question of even admitting intellectuals to socialist groups; in the First International it was Marx who proposed and put through the rule that branches had to consist of at least 2/3 workers. (I wonder what Marx and Engels would have thought of a Marxist sect that consisted only of intellectuals; I think it would have blown their minds.)

The life on an ideological sect

At this point, then, you have a grotesque poltical animal – a “proletarian socialist movement” without any workers but with lots of fine ideas. Your problem is becoming a working class group, even a working class sect, and you have two strikes against you: Firstly, the life of an ideological sect is congenial only to ideologists, to intellectuals. And time and again those same individuals who have sincerely passed the most burning resolutions really don’t want to change the life of the group, which is congenial to them. Secondly, assuming a real desire to change, you must find some way of breaking out of the vicious circle: on the one hand, you really can’t change until you have workers in your organization and you can’t recruit and keep workers until you have changed.

The first way out of that vicious circle, historically, has been the conversion of the intellectuals into workers – the industrialization of the intellectual membership. There are varying degrees of experience in this. As far as this country is concerned, the best two cases that I know of were: the Communist Party (I’m leaving politics aside, now), particularly during the period of the organizing of the CIO; and the Independent Socialist League in the Second World War.

Now, just a couple of points about the CP in the CIO days. When the drive started, a symbiotic relationship came into existence between the CP and John L. Lewis. The CP took advantage of the situation by getting their people into the early organizing drives of the CIO. In doing this, they were doing something different from two other ways of getting into the trade union movement: working in a shop or factory, or becoming one of the intellectual flunkies of the bureaucracy. What the CP did wasn’t either of these. They weren’t simply rank and file workers, and often they weren’t “bureaucrats.” This opportunity arises every now and then. They went in and did not make communist speeches at CIO meetings. They went in and tolerated Lewis’ dictatorship. They lived under that, and it was damn hard for them to do so. But what they got was invaluable experience which you will never get in any other way. They got a second thing – something that comes from organizing workers on the job, who know that you fought for them – moral authority. They got their credentials as militant trade unionists while they were tolerating Lewis’ dictatorship on top. Thirdly, while they couldn’t get up and make revolutionary speeches, they spread their influence and their ideas – a little more subtly and in some ways more effectively.

On this question of getting more experience: I take as a contemporary example the question of whether or not radicals should go into the United Farm Workers organizing drive. While Chavez may be a “bureaucrat,” he does not compare with Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, or others who were better than those two. The sect will say: “Chavez does not let you make your own decisions. He tells the organizers what to do.” But Chavez is not the problem; he is not your problem. The best thing that could happen to some of our radical intellectuals is that they should go organize for UFWOC even if they keep their mouths shut for a while in order to gain those three other things. That is, get the “feel” of it. If there is one thing that is true of socialist sects, it is that they consist of people who have the best ideas of what the working class ought to do, and who are right, but who have no “feel” for it. They do not know how to talk to workers. Through these organizing drives you learn to talk to workers. You don’t begin as the professor; you begin as a pupil. You have to learn a few things you don’t know and get your credentials in the workers’ eyes. You get the authority to talk. “After all, who are you to tell them what to do? Have you ever organized two workers? And you are going to tell the union bureaucrats how to organize?! Why should a worker listen to you?” That is the nature of the problem.

So we come to the problem of industrialization, of really changing the character of the socialist sect. Once you start doing that, a number of questions are raised.

Anne and I had an opportunity to face the problems of industrialization in the period of the Second World War. I am referring to the experience of the ISL, when it was possible to a far greater extent than at present to industrialize and proletarianize the membership, an opportunity seized by the organization. What happened from 1942 to 1946 was the relatively large-scale industrialization of a large part of our membership. This opportunity arose from two sides: on the one hand, the alternative to going into a factory was getting drafted. Since most of the membership faced the draft anyway, we decided that everybody should go into the factories and get industrial deferments to avoid the draft for as long as possible. On the other hand, because of the war and the period, jobs were wide open.

What do you run into when this process starts? One of the first problems we ran into was a small fact which changed the life of the branch: we had to end every meeting at 10 p.m., for the simple reason that we all had to get up at 5:45 a.m. You would be amazed if I were to spell out to you the changes in the life of a branch brought about once you have to shorten the duration of your meetings and when none of your active people can attend four committee meetings a week because they have to attend four union meetings a week. The branch activists were not active within the sect; they were active among the workers.

Responsibility and the working class outlook

Secondly, and thirdly, let me mention two things which differentiate the people we were working with, as compared with what is enforced upon us today. First there is the question of responsibility. Students are “irresponsible” in the literal sense. Students are not weighed down and shackled by the obligations which most workers have. They are free in many respects. Workers are not free. Politically, when we talk of responsibility, we are dealing with the social consequences of lifestyle. When you make proposals, you have to think them out in a new way, to a much greater extent than you would for the student movement. Otherwise, you’re likely to get the reputation, among the workers, as the kind of person who makes an irresponsible move at the drop of a hat. And you won’t be listened to by people who are interested in keeping their jobs, paying off their mortgages, and supporting their husbands and wives.

What does your program mean to the lives of these responsible people whom you are trying to organize and whose lives and careers may depend on you if you are a union organizer, for example?

Another aspect of the difference between students and workers is that you are dealing, for the most part, with people who have a permanent prospect of having to be workers. You or I, even when we enter the workplace, always have alternatives; for the average worker there are no alternatives. In this respect, therefore, there is an inescapable difference you can’t get over. You can only realize it, you can’t get over it.

There is, in the working class, something equivalent to the temporary state of being a student. In the past, it has always been true that women workers, especially young women workers in offices, have been hard to organize because they viewed their jobs as temporary, a situation they pass through on the way to getting married. Whereas the worker who is working in a factory or the like looks upon the union in a totally different way. The union means something different to him than it means to those women workers, or to a certain sector of young workers today who may work for six months and then disappear for a while.

The concentration span of intellectuals

So, consider what this whole situation does in terms of the life of the radical sect, in terms of its educational life. A lot of our membership then (and undoubtedly now) found it difficult to get interested in “low-level” things like explaining elementary socialism to workers, to whom it is a brand new idea. They were bored. Intellectuals get bored very easily; they live in the world of ideas, and if the ideas aren’t challenging enough they lose their interest. We had comrades who could listen to five or six trade union reports and find it just a lot of mumbo-jumbo. It just wasn’t “interesting.” The solution to this problem comes about only insofar as you participate in these discussions not simply as an audience that needs to be amused or interested, but as a group of comrades interested in presenting these elementary ideas to workers. Comrades should listen to, say, a discussion on elementary socialism, asking themselves, “Could I do this?” Think in terms of learning to be the leader and focus of a circle of workers yourself. If you do this, you can find a good elementary talk on socialism fascinating. You are going to have to get across these ideas to people who are operating on an entirely different level from yourself, and if you can’t do that, you aren’t worth a damn.

There is one other question I want to take up. As I told you, there is not much written on the problem of getting from here to there. But there have been some interesting verbal discussions on the subject. One way of dealing with the question of the social composition of your group is purely mechanical. Trotsky, perturbed by the composition of the Trotskyist group, made the proposal that every member of the group be required to recruit, in the course of one year, three workers or be demoted to candidate status (i.e., second-class citizenship). That proposal was never considered seriously; it was too mechanical. At least Marx’s 2/3 proposal was easier to enforce because most of the branches of the First International did begin as workers’ groups.

Now, if I were to propose that we expel our students or non-workers we would have an obvious difficulty. The L.O. people would say that was because we started off on the wrong foot. What the L.O. people have done is take seriously the idea that if you are building a proletarian socialist movement, then workers are the first-class citizens in your movement and the others are either second-class citizens or not citizens. In my opinion, that is absolutely right. It has been the case for every revolutionary socialist group that was worth its salt, although perhaps in a different form than in L.O. In L.O. it is done mechanically, and I am not sympathetic to that, but in the best groups it has been true. Another thing that has been done is packing the leadership with workers, even if they are not the majority of the organization, in order to orient the organization.

Let me give you two examples of what this orientation means. When I went to L.A. in 1942, as party organizer, I kept my mouth shut about trade union problems for six months – and I was not even completely alien to trade union work. The branch was involved deeply in trade union work and you could not even begin discussing intelligently the problems they faced until you got a feel for their situation. So I’m trying to emphasize that this has nothing to do with your social position or the imposition of discipline. It has to do with the climate of opinion in an organization – the relationship between comrades who are involved up to their hips in serious trade union work as socialists and those others who might be much better at making speeches on Marxism.

This problem, when faced by a revolutionary group, must be met by an understanding on the part of at least a minority of the intellectuals of what their place is. Until and unless that happens, the concrete organizational solutions which one can discuss are not even thinkable. That is the way for getting from here to there – intellectuals in a socialist vanguard group must know their place.

 These texts are transcripts of a series of talks held in October/November 1970.
Downloaded from the
Center for Socialist History Website.
© Center for Socialist History. The rest of the series of talks is available at:


  1. Jim Denham said,

    I’ll be honest with you, Jack: I think the AWL (and myself, as an individual) fucked up in the early days of the Lindsey strike and the associated action elsewhere. Not having members directly involved, all we had to go on was media images of strikers holding placards procaiming “British Jobs For British Workers”: it looked bad, and I said so on this blog.

    As more information became available, it gradually became apparent that the strike was not comparable to (say) the pro-Powell walkouts by London dockers in 1968, and that there was a pro-union, working class content to the action that could -and *should* be supported by socialists. Indeed, had we not done so, we would have left the field open for the BNP. Volty, on this blog, congratulated the SP for their excellent anti-racist intervention, and I agree.

    The AWL was a bit slow on the uptake, and meanwhile one of our less experienced comrades joined (and, I understand, helped organise) a silly picket of Unite’s HQ, which we as an organisation have disavowed.

    Yes: we were wrong, and should openly state that fact. But I’m not ashamed of our initial reservations about the action: we were absolutely right to be wary of the nationalist and potentially racist slogans that the media highlighted when the strike broke out.

  2. Matt said,

    “On the one hand, you have socialists who bridge the gap by driving right across it and over to the other side, losing themselves (and their socialist ideas) in the mass movement. This has been a very popular thing to settle for, and it is one way of solving the problem personally.”

    Remind you of anyone Jack?

  3. Johnny Duncan said,

    Comrades will remember that Powell made a speech denouncing the policy
    that allowed large scale “coloured” immigration and was sacked for it
    from the fron bench of the Tory opposition. He had warned that, ‘like
    the ancient Roman’, he could foresee “the Tiber [river] foaming with
    much blood”. Dockers in London went on strike ostensibly in defence of
    “free speech for Powell”, but in reality because they agreed with the
    racism of it.

    These were some of the best militants in Britain. Four or five months
    earlier their ten-week strike against the reorganisation of the ports
    and the introduction of a new system of regulating port labour had ended
    in defeat. Not only were they militant, even hyper-militant, but their
    rank and file leaders were known members of the Communist Party —
    politically wretched people from our point of view, but considered
    generally to be the far left.

    On the morning “the dockers went mad” (as “Workers Fight” described it soon
    afterwards) the most prominent CP leader, Jack Dash, a prominent media
    “personality” who used to chair mass meetings on Tower Hill, stood
    forlornly outside the dock gates, flanked on one side by a Protestant
    and on the other by a Catholic priest, vainly appealing to the dockers
    who contemptuously swept past them, not to strike.

    The CP of course had an approach that allowed their members to operate
    as mere trade unioinists, their politics, and the political development
    of the workers they led, pushed aside.

    Dash was Chairman of the London Docks Liason Committee, the rank and
    file movement. Its Secretary was Terry Barrett. He had also been a CPer,
    but by early 1968 was either a member or on the verge of becoming a
    member of the IS (SWP).

    He was far and away the best of the rank and file leaders. By that time
    I knew him quite well (I had participated in the work he had done the
    previous summer to try and create a national rank and file network to
    oppose the reorganisation of the labour system to the detriment of the
    dockers.) and was in regular contact with him. What did he do during the
    racist strike? He “crossed the picket-line” — he went in to work during
    the Powell strike.

    Naturally he came under a lot of fire for it. Was he right or wrong?

    I think he was wrong, thought so then. He should have stood at the gates
    with a placard, or something, demonstrating his opposition, without
    “crossing the picket line”. And? I defended him, as did Harold Youd, the
    other docker in “Workers Fight”, and as did a lot of other people who
    thought he’d made a mistake. We stood up to those who for all sorts of
    reasons, and the CP in the first place, wanted to use the incident to,
    so to speak, bash his brains out.

    Were we wrong? After all he had scabbed on the most militant workers in
    Britain, hadn’t he? The point is that he had bloody good reason to, even
    though what he did was a serious error. What he was trying to do was
    perfectly honourable and respect-worthy. He believed opposition to
    racism had to take precedence over routine trade union solidarity.

    I repeat: anything that would pit us, or appear to pit us, against the
    workers should have been avoided — but there was nothing “scabbish” or
    politically dishonourable in the impulse to oppose a strike that, as some
    comrades understood it, was a chauvinist strike that, amongst other things
    would be divisive as between immigrant and “native” workers in Britain.

    Lack of experience of the labour movement was the problem of some young AWL comrades, not the
    impulse to fight what they thought the strike embodied.

  4. John Palmer said,

    “Johnny Duncan” is completely wrong in his account about Terry Barrett and the 1968 dockers strike in support of Enoch Powell. His suggestion that the CP wanted “to bash his brains out” for crossing the dockers picket line is the purest fiction. It is true that the first response of Terry Barrett and his small group of political comrades in the West India docks was to defy the racist strike call. He was an exceptionally principled socialist – especially on the race issue which got his Irish blood boiling – as he used to say. His position led to a long and very heated discussion with the IS leadership. I remember one meeting with Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Geoff Carlsson and myself. Cliff, I must say, argued for hours and finally convinced Terry to respect the picket lines but to organise a group of anti-racist dockers and other socialists to hand out a leaflet an anti-Powell leaflet (written, I think by Paul Foot) to the pickets and marching dockers. This is precisely what happened. Terry was an exceptional militant and socialist – who received his political education by the way NOT in the CP but in the SPGB. He always was a working class auto-didact and intellectual (who used to take GCE O and A levels as a hobby). Although in a small minority at the time of the pro-Powell movement, he was able subsequently to gather a significant number of dockers around him. When he moved to Tilbury the dockers IS branch there used to get very good meetings. I remember one attended by about 30 working dockers. This led to the production of Rank and File Docker in the subsequent period,. Terry is no longer with us and is unable to defend himself. “Johnny Duncan” should apologise for his mistake.

  5. paul m said,

    I can’t help myself asking, which union Jack is active in?

  6. tcd said,

    a great article, obviously the crisis is shaking british centrism, a month ago even nobody considered these issue I variusly raised them here and on Lenin’s Tomb

  7. Jim Denham said,

    By “british centrism” I take it you mean the SWP, tcd?

  8. Darren said,

    Jim, are you Johnny Duncan?

  9. Jim Denham said,


  10. Darren said,

    Then why is Johnny Duncan listed as Jim Denham in the comments box? Is wordpress playing up?

  11. Jim Denham said,

    He sends me his posts, and I forward them.

  12. jackhaslam said,

    The post is not an attack on the AWL and I actually broadly agree with your account in this regard . Nor is the post an attack on any left group as such. All I’ve done is reprinted a piece by a prominent socialist thinker on some of the broader issues. the intention was to provide food for thought.

    I would be very interested to hear the response to John Palmer on Terry Barrett as i’ve heard that particular version of .events that John disputes many times repeated many times in different contexts.

  13. John Palmer said,

    I have thought of one other person who may be in a position to confirm my account of Terry Barrett’s role in the 1968 dockers strike in support of Enoch Powell. In his contribution Johnny Duncan refers to the “One other docker” being in “Workers Fight” at the time with him – Harold Youd. But unless I am mistaken Sean Matgamna – who had at least for a while worked as a docker – was also in “Socialist Fight” at that time. Perhaps Matgamna might be prevailed on to indicate whether or not he agrees with Duncan’s profoundly inaccurate and ill informed account.

  14. Jim Denham said,

    I strongly suspect that John P is right and Johnny is wrong. I’ll ask Sean who, as John P correctly notes, was a docker himself at the time. But it’s clear that Johnny’s account is not motivated by malice: his tone is of the utmost respect for Terry Barrett. I think the confusion may have set in because (according to John P), Terry’s initial instinct was, indeed, to simply cross the picket line and he told comrades of his intention do so, but was eventually talked out of it by the IS leadership, including JP.

  15. Matt said,

    I can understand Terry Barrett saying initially that he would be working and then being persuaded not to by the IS leadership. I can also see how confusion might arise, with people attacking and defending him for what they wrongly thought he had done based on his initial statement, without realising what had really happened. I think we’d need an eyewitness from the picket line to really establish the truth.

    I also happen to think that even if he did cross the picket line it would only be a tactical rather than a principled mistake. It would surely have been a different matter if he could have persuaded at least a large minority of his workmates to cross the picket line in opposition to racism.

  16. tcd said,

    “By “british centrism” I take it you mean the SWP, tcd?”

    I mean all British trotskyism.

  17. voltairespriest said,

    Even the Sparts? Jeez, you must be hard-core.

  18. Hal Draper: The sect and working class lifestyle, or why intellectuals should know their place « Poumista said,

    […] Draper: The sect and working class lifestyle, or why intellectuals should know their place Splendid stuff, from Shiraz Socialist Published […]

  19. jackhaslam said,


    The article just focuses on one aspect of the question of leadership. For something of more direct relevance to the POUM could I suggest you have a look at Trotsky’s overview of the question of leadership and the lessons of the Spanish revolution:

  20. Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen Linken - eine Auswahl « Entdinglichung said,

    […] Hal Draper: The sect and working class lifestyle, or why intellectuals should know their place […]

  21. c0mmunard said,

    Thing is Jim, plenty of other groups without people on the ground managed to work out what was going on alot earlier using google and the mainstream press. I don’t think you should be ashamed about it – people make mistakes, fair enough. But it doesn’t make sense to pretend that others didn’t get it right with the same information.

    I commend the openness with which you admit the error anyway: that is rare on the left. Though I think maybe you’re being a bit unfair to just blame one comrade in the organisation. ‘More experienced comrades’ got things wrong as well I believe…

    Anyway, I woul reccomend all comrades take the time to look over this article by Gregor Gall.

    I disagree with (what I understand as) the thrust of the conclusions, but in terms of understanding the dynamics of the strike, it’s unmatched.

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