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the promotion of politically separatist policies on behalf of a SECT. Strictly speaking, a sectarian movement can only manifest itself when a grouping in society has broken away from the established religious body. This is usually due to differences in doctrinal belief or religious practice, although the beliefs of the breakaway group are not distinct enough to form the basis for a new religion. The term is often used, however, in a much more general way to distinguish any kind of separatist movement where a sect can have its basis in national or political identity as well as in religion. Hence, 'sectarianism’ is often applied to the contemporary situation in Northern Ireland.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in the working-class movement, the isolation or detachment of revolutionary organizations or parties from the toiling masses, as a result of mistaken ideological and political orientations, particularly of a leftist and dogmatic character.

Sectarianism emerged in the working-class movement in the first half of the 19th century. At that time it was a specific form of protest against capitalism and was linked with a number of different tendencies in Utopian socialism and communism: in France, the Babouvists, the Blanquists, the followers of Saint-Simon and Fourier, and the Proudhonists; in Germany, the “true socialists” and the followers of Weitling; and in Great Britain, the Owenites. F. Engels pointed out that the “confusion” characteristic of the socialist movement in its early stages was “to be seen in the formation of numerous sects that fight against each other with at least the same zeal as against the common external enemy” (F. Engels, “On the History of Early Christianity,” in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 478).

From the very beginning, scientific communism proclaimed its rejection, in principle, of any sectarianism. The Communist Manifesto declared: “The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement” (Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 4, p. 437). The Revolutions of 1848 and 1849 dealt a blow to pre-Marxist forms of socialism, undermining the position of the countless sects in the European working-class movement. With the founding of the First International in 1864, a decisive step was taken toward overcoming sectarianism of this type. The history of the First International was characterized by a continuous struggle by the General Council against various sects, which tried to consolidate their position inside the International. Among these sects were the Proudhonists (Mutualists) in France, the Lassalleans in Germany, and especially Bakunin’s anarchists (mainly in Italy, Spain, and Switzerland). The struggle resulted in the solid establishment of Marxism in the socialist working-class movement. On the whole, the Second International, founded in 1889, held Marxist positions.

At the same time, however, the Marxist socialist movement experienced symptoms of a new sectarianism associated with a doctrinaire distortion of Marxism that was partly a reaction against the strengthening of reformist and opportunist tendencies in the Second International and its sections. Sectarian tendencies were especially evident sometimes in the Guesdist Workers’ Party in France. Sectarian elements (W. Hasselman and J. Most) were active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, but they were not very influential. The Social Democratic Federation in Great Britain and the Socialist Labor Party in the USA, both of which followed a sectarian line, were sharply criticized by Engels for turning Marx’ theory into a “rigid orthodoxy” (“Letter to A. Sorge,” May 12, 1894, ibid., vol. 39, p. 207). Engels insistently advised the Anglo-American socialists to abandon their narrow, backward, sectarian spirit and merge with the labor movement. V. I. Lenin emphasized the great importance of these remarks, especially since he himself was forced to struggle continually against sectarianism in the Russian Social Democratic movement—for example, against localism and the “narrow circle” mentality in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, against Menshevik and semi-Menshevik doctrinairism during and after the Revolution of 1905–07 in Russia, and against the Otzovists and Ultimatists (the Liquidators in reverse) during the years of reaction.

After the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, with the rise of the revolutionary working-class movement in a number of countries, the problem of combating sectarianism became even greater in scope and urgency. In addition to throwbacks to earlier sectarianism (for example, the revival of anarchist currents), new sectarian tendencies appeared in the young Communist parties. Within the Bolshevik party “the “Left” Communists and the Trotskyists were conveyers of sectarianism. During this period Trotskyism became the greatest danger, for it endeavored to revise the general line of the communist movement. In the Western Communist parties the tendency toward sectarianism was also linked with what Lenin called “the infantile disorder of left-wing’ communism”—exaggerated “revolutionism,” the rejection of all compromises, and refusal to participate in parliamentary activities or work in the reformist trade unions.

The Communist International gave a great deal of assistance to the young Communist parties in overcoming left sectarian errors. However, even later, elements of sectarianism appeared in the communist movement—for example, in the distortion of Lenin’s policy of the united front and in the characterization of Social Democracy as “the moderate wing of fascism.” These errors became especially widespread after the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, when the tactic of “class against class” was put into practice. From the late 1920’s to the mid-1930’s sectarianism was, according to G. Dimitrov, a “deeply engrained vice” in several Communist parties in the capitalist countries.

A major step toward overcoming sectarianism in the communist movement was taken by the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1935, which added a rich, new dimension, based on experience, to the tactics and strategy of the workers’ united front, and proposed a program for creating a popular front against war and fascism. The resolutions of the Seventh Comintern Congress outlined a broad platform, free of all sectarian restrictions and advocating the unity of the working class and all democratic forces. The popular front policy and subsequent Communist participation in the organization of antifascist resistance movements, as well as Communist leadership of these movements during World War II (1939–45), imparted new authority to the Communist parties and helped eliminate sectarian tendencies.

In the postwar years the victory of socialist revolutions in a number of European and Asian countries, the involvement of millions of members of the nonproletarian masses in the world revolutionary process, and the further expansion of the communist movement were accompanied by new manifestations of sectarianism, caused sometimes by the lack of political experience of certain young participants in the revolutionary movement and sometimes by the influence of petit bourgeois revolutionism and nationalism. In the early 1960’s the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) put forward “left” opportunist and nationalist positions against the line of the international communist movement, which had been worked out jointly by Communist and working-class parties, including the CPC. The Chinese leaders advanced a special ideological and political platform that served their own goals of great power chauvinism and nationalism. Having failed to impose this platform on the communist movement, the CPC leadership began an open struggle against the Marxist-Leninist parties, organizing or encouraging the organization of Maoist splinter groups and “parties” in other countries and drawing closer and closer to the most reactionary imperialist forces in their struggle against the communist movement, the Soviet Union, and the other countries of the socialist commonwealth (seeMAOISM). Sectarian tendencies also emerged in the form of various neo Trotskyist, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, and other ultraleftist movements, especially in Latin America.

The international communist movement opposes all forms of sectarianism in the theory and practice of the revolutionary struggle. In 1969 the International Conference of Communists and Workers’ Parties stressed the determination of all Communists “to consistently uphold their principles and work for the triumph of Marxism-Leninism and, in accordance with the concrete situation, fight against Right and Left opportunist distortions of theory and policy, against revisionism, dogmatism, and Left sectarian adventurism” (Mezhdunarodnae soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii, Moscow, 1969, pp. 328–29).


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoi partii. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Marx, K. [F. Bol’te, 23 noiab. 1871. Letter.] Ibid, vol. 33.
Engels, F.[A. Bebeliu, 20 iiunia 1873 g. Letter.] Ibid., vol. 33.
Engels, F. [F. Zorge, 12 maia 1894. Letter.] Ibid., vol. 39.
Engels, F.“K istorii pervonachal’nogo khristianstva.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. “Predislovie k russkomu perevodu knigi ‘Pis’ma I. F. Bekkera. I. Ditsgena, F. Engel’sa, K. Marksa i dr. k F.A. Zorge i dr.’” In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 15.
Lenin, V. I. “O revoliutsionnoi fraze.” Ibid., vol. 35.
Lenin, V. I. “O ‘levom’ rebiachestve i o melkoburzhuaznosti.” Ibid., vol. 36.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn’ ‘levizny’v kommunizme, Ibid., vol. 41.
Brezhnev, L. I. KPSS v bor’be za edinstvo vsekh revoliutskmnykh i miroliubivykh sil. Moscow, 1972.
Dimitrov, G. “Nastuplenie fashizma i zadachi Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala v bor’be za edinstvo rabochego klassa protiv fashizma.” Izbr.proizv., vol. 1. Moscow, 1957.
Kommunisticheskii International: Kratkii istoricheskii ocherk. Moscow, 1969.
Mezhdanarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.