Saturday 15 March 2014

Sectarianism and the Far Left

I was thinking about writing something quite substantial for one of those seldom-read professional journals on sectarianism and the far left. It turns out (H/T Scott) that I might not have to. A UCL PhD dissertation from 1979 has just come to light on this very topic. Steve Rayner's The Classification and Dynamics of Sectarian Forms of Organisation: Grid/Group Perspectives on the Far-Left in Britain is a mouthful, but for anoraks like ... well, me; it's a delicious one. Here's the abstract for the study.
The purpose of this thesis is to develop a new perspective for the classification of sectarian forms of organisation and the study of their dynamics. It is not intended as a definitive study of any particular group, or of the British far-left as a whole.

Existing typologies of sectarianism in the sociology of religion are subjected to a critique on two grounds:

1) They often have a theological character, based on the content of the belief systems of sects rather than on the social structure.
2) Their roots lie in an 'essentialist' tradition of static hierarchical classifications of dynamic phenomena.

One of the reasons for studying political groups in this context is that they have not been subjected to these classificatory assumptions, and can be approached more objectively in the development of new perspectives.

The argument proceeds to the exposition of grid and group, both as a 'polythetic' system of classification and as one based on a matrix rather than a hierarchy. This provides us with a potentially dynamic classificatory approach.

In order to test and advance the model, two themes are selected for special attention in terms of grid and group, from and historical review of the far-left since the second world war. These are the schismatic character of the groups and their tendency toward utopianism which are examined in selected groups over the decade that followed their watershed of 1968.

Utopianism is discussed in the framework of the relationship posited by grid and group, between spatial and temporal aspects of the cosmology and the social structure. It is argued that this approach is more informative than traditional general notions of relative deprivation. Splits and alliances are examined in terms of the organisation dynamics and mode of exercise of power in sectarian forms; and conclusions are drawn about the patterns of relative stability which emerge as groups are distributed across the grid/group matrix.

Finally, the distribution of power within the selected groups is compared with the perceptions of the members of how power is exercised.

The implications of the 'false-consciousness' of sectarians about their own organisational forms leads to an examination of the potential for their cosmologies to conceal certain aspects of the world, such as the source of political power, at the same time as making the world comprehensible.


Anonymous said...

This looks awesome, Phil. I will read it!


Anonymous said...

I don't know why you say that the thesis has just come to light. The papers were quoting from it last December because it's still the only academic source of information on the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought. The sections on Comrade Bala and his followers are fascinating, though also chilling, and worth a read on their own, quite apart from the rest of the 292 pages ...

Anonymous said...

interesting to see the word "cosmology" used in this context. adds the proper archaic touch. reminds me of a speech from bertolt brecht's play "galileo" where a cardinal is upset because galileo "transfers mankind from the center of the universe to somewhere on the outskirts." he then goes on to say, "i won't have it! i won't be a nobody on an inconsequential star briefly twirling hither and thither."


p.s. sorry to hear about the passing of tony benn and bob crow. please accept a comradely note of condolence from this side of the atlantic. although, their passing does prompt me to ask a question. in your opinion, what is it that the left has successfully reproduced over the generations? a mode of analysis, a set of principles, a sense of historical mission, or just a particular style, or even, in what is probably the biggest historical irony of all, an identity that is subject to the same forces of reification and marketization as any other these days?

howard fuller said...

Actually Phil I think you should write something substantial on the far-left if you still have the inclination.

I've read sections of that paper covering the "hey day" of the far left (it was much bigger and influential in the seventies/early eighties)and it reminds me of my ill spent student/early years. I first came across Red Weekly in 1974 when I left school and have remained both fascinated and appalled by them in equal measure.

A study of how they have changed since then would be useful given the Respect debacle, the delta affair, the slavery accusations (not heard much of that one since it broke in the news). There's stuff I've probably forgotten to.

I'd read/buy your copy even if I don't always agree with you.

I'm afraid my atheism has extended to Marxism these days. I do consider it a religion of sorts. Certainly its adherents treat it is such....

Btw I now know why you have comments on moderation. Developed a Troll myself I did!

Phil said...

Les, you're basically asking me to write a book!

In short, the greatest success of the left is keeping the labour movement together in a hostile policy and cultural environment. Perhaps that's the trite answer, but when I encounter the dysfunctions and jockeying for position in various unions and the party itself it really is an amazing accomplishment!

Phil said...

I do have a chapter coming out in an upcoming book (June!) on the far left since 1956. But it is a run-of-the-mill history of the SP and SWP between then and the onset of the financial crisis.

There is still the PhD that keeps haunting me. I really should sort it out for publication but it needs a very substantial rewrite. I am also bound by the promises made to participants never to use their interviews for polemical reasons - a promise I will be keeping

Anonymous said...

actually, that's not a trite answer, and yes, that was a cunning ploy on my part to see if you were thinking about using some of your sociological skillz (that's the american spelling) to put out a book at some point. i know i'd really like to read it.