Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Vanguard?
Spend any significant amount of time reading leftist literature, and you’re bound to encounter the term “vanguardist” thrown about. It is usually wielded by anarchists, though they are certainly not alone when it comes to using this term in a loaded, pejorative manner aimed at Marxist-Leninists. When used in this fashion, the intended message is that “vanguard” equates with an elite, select group, to which the whole working class must defer. With this assumption the door is then opened to a whole procession of tired and dated anti-communist clichés.
There’s the idea that communist revolutionaries simply replace one ruling class with another, the claim that Marxist revolutionaries really just seek power and authority, and on occasion the idiotic idea that the presence of a vanguard as a component to the practical side of revolutionary theory somehow makes Marxism-Leninism “right-wing,” or at least excludes it from the “real” left.
The very term “vanguardist,” which is utterly meaningless from a Marxist-Leninist point of view, seems to have no other purpose but to reduce Marxist-Leninist theory down to this one practical point, and cast suspicion on Marxist-Leninist parties and organizations. Of course the term vanguard can only take on this magical aura when we accept the irrational and unfounded assumptions with which opponents seek to pile upon the otherwise ordinary word. We will examine these assumptions in detail. For now, let us look at the term’s history within Marxism-Leninism.
What Does “Vanguard” Really Mean?
The basic definition of “vanguard” refers to the forward element of a military formation on the move, the advanced guard, or as it is known in French, avant-garde. Something so mundane as the literal definition of vanguard might strike the reader as being wholly unnecessary, but because arguments over a workers’ vanguard, and especially a vanguard party, typically involve anarchists, ultra-leftists, and even liberals posing as the former when it suits them, it is necessary to begin by going to the basic definition of vanguard, without all the taboo, hidden meanings it is allegedly supposed to convey.
Is the Concept of a Vanguard Elitist?
There is nothing there about being elite, superior, or better in any way. Literally, it means that the troops of the vanguard will likely meet the enemy first, and subsequent formations will follow on. True, in colloquial usage we often associate “vanguard” with the best of the best, perhaps reasoning that military strategists would put their best troops at the front. This is not the case in real life, however; often times the vanguard merely finds and fixes the enemy while the reserves actually bring victory. The word vanguard does not automatically imply elite or superior status.
For those not familiar with the historical side of Marxism, the term “vanguard” is often associated with Vladimir Lenin, but the term dates as far back as The Communist Manifesto. That there are differences between Marx and Engels’ original concept of the workers’ vanguard and that of Lenin is explained by the profound political and economic changes in Europe since the 1840s when the Manifesto was published. Marx and Engels originally saw the role of communists as one outside parliamentary politics and political parties. Some relevant text from The Communist Manifesto explains:
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.
The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.
From this passage it is easy to make several quick observations. First, the authors are not referring to communists as a separate party (something they reiterate in the Manifesto), but rather people working within various existing political parties and organizations at that time. At that point in history many workers allied with the bourgeois class against the feudal nobility in those nations where such relations were still in force. A recurring concern of Marx and Engels was that workers would maintain their own interests within these struggles to establish bourgeois democratic republics, and not be bought off by petty reforms. In this passage Marx makes reference to “working-class” and “proletarian” parties, but at the time there were few parties which could truly fit such terms. More accurately there were bourgeois parties whose aims conflicted with that of the monarchies and feudal nobility, and out of the convergence of interests on this point they drew mass support from workers and peasants. The divergence of interests within these parties would become more apparent after the events of 1848 in Europe, that is, after The Communist Manifesto was published.
The second observation we can make is in regards to the language with which Marx describes the communists, as, “…the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”
In the first part of that quote he calls the communists “the most advanced,” but this does not imply that they are so because of some inherent superiority or wisdom. In the second half of the quote the authors tell us that the communists have a theoretical advantage over the masses of the proletariat, which he outlines in detail. Marx never denied that the working class spontaneously acts in its own interest; in fact in the Manifesto itself he asserts just that, and the fact that the proletariat has a better, more well-defined consciousness of its own class and situation in society is according to Marx one of its defining attributes. But this consciousness or self-awareness alone is not nearly enough to cause a revolution which overthrows the present system, brings the working class into absolute power, and by extension eventually eliminates class altogether.
Here is where the term vanguard first starts to get saddled with emotional baggage. In this context, the idea that someone could have more theoretical knowledge than anyone else is treated as blasphemy, as inherently negative, as though it implied that the workers are stupid, or that the communists are claiming some kind of superior, esoteric knowledge with which to lead the proletariat to victory.
It matters not that we are not even speaking of a vanguard party at this point. The very idea that one person might know something important while another one doesn’t cannot mean anything but that the former is more intelligent and superior than the latter. Anarchists allege that workers don’t need any kind of organization such as a party to abolish capitalism and run their affairs. This, of course, is strange considering that nowhere in the world have workers spontaneously overthrown capitalism in order to create an anarchist communist society.
Anarchists are not the only people who attack the Leninist concept of a vanguard and a vanguard party. Some liberal authors, such as those of the otherwise provocative and useful book The Rebel Sell (US title- A Nation of Rebels), suggest that the need for some kind of vanguard might proof that workers actually like and prefer capitalism to some allegedly better form of society. At least in this one case, the authors clearly failed to take into account the strength of the labor movement as well as the communist role in that movement for many decades. What this liberal critique provides, however, is one clear reason why a vanguard party or organization is necessary.
Any worker can perceive that he or she is exploited somehow. Everyone knows sayings like, “if work were fun, they wouldn’t have to pay people to do it.” Consciousness of their own predicament as a class is the unique advantage of the modern proletariat. Yet there is a wide gap between perceiving this exploitation in one particular form, and struggling against it via those means historically available to the labor movement, and overthrowing capitalist society to build a new one. The former comes naturally, whereas the latter arises from a realization that the system cannot be made more just or equitable, that there exists between the ruling and working classes a number of irreconcilable contradictions which ensure that exploitation and inequality will continue indefinitely until that society is either overthrown and replaced, or some kind of environmental disaster wipes out human life on Earth, whichever comes first.
Why is a Vanguard Necessary?
Now we may address the question as to why a vanguard or vanguard party is necessary. Prior to a revolution, workers need some organization which can provide education which they would otherwise either not have access to, or for which they might not have enough time. Part of the workers’ lack of political power stems from the fact that workers are often so burdened by their jobs and obligations that there is no time left for contemplation of political and economic issues as a whole. Through party organizations, workers with an interest in such matters gather together to study and help spread what they learn to their colleagues in ways which are easy to understand, unobtrusive, and don’t get in the way of the daily struggle for survival. In addition to this role, a vanguard party helps maintain the struggle for workers’ interests in the political arena at every level, while remaining independent from “progressive” bourgeois parties such as the Democratic party in the US.
The role of a revolutionary proletarian vanguard during and after a revolution will be quite different, though we should not assume that it will resemble previously-existing parties. In fact, since Marxism-Leninism is a living theory which forces us to learn from our past mistakes, we should expect future revolutions to be different, even radically so. This having been said, the vanguard party’s role will, during a revolution, mainly be concerned with military matters. There may be many different workers organizations but during an insurgency the party will probably have to remain underground. As various territories come under the influence of the workers’ revolutionary movement, the party will help to set up what is known as a “parallel hierarchy,” which is nothing more than a provisional institution designed to maintain production and infrastructure in liberated zones until the capitalist government has collapsed and any foreign forces of intervention have been expelled.
After the revolution, the party’s role in general is to provide the workers with the information and knowledge they need to make good, informed decisions toward their short and long term goals. Workers can learn to handle the affairs of their own workplaces and localities quite quickly, but directing the actions of the country as a whole requires some kind of body which collects information from the periphery and redistributes it from the center so that everyone is able to get a big picture view of their situation.
Ultimately, the goal of the party should be to make itself irrelevant by enabling the working class the fullest and most direct control of all their affairs. Key areas where the party needs to take an active role would be in mass media, primary education, and military matters. The victory of socialism throughout the world will eventually make certain institutions, particularly the military, unnecessary; thereby further reducing the need for a party.
Who Should be in the Vanguard?
Coming back to the present, we might ask what sort of people should make up the workers’ vanguard. Who are the “most advanced” workers? Advanced can have a lot of meanings in this case. Those workers who, for whatever reason, reject bourgeois society and passionately seek something higher can be counted among the advanced. Those who for whatever reason have been exposed to leftist thought and theory, or those who have experience in the labor struggle may be considered advanced. Those who go out of the way to help their fellow workers can be considered advanced. Being advanced does not at all imply some kind of superiority of any sort. Inferring such seems to suggest that one cannot possibly learn from anyone else.
In Lenin’s time, the Bolsheviks faced the disadvantage of working in a country with a small proletariat which, along with the peasants, was largely illiterate. The pre-revolutionary struggle in Russia saw a unification of young intellectuals of the student movement and politically active workers; the former supplied the benefits of their study and literacy in the form of theory, while the latter supplied their knowledge of real world conditions in the workplace.
Lenin did not suggest, however, that the intellectuals were superior to the workers. In What is to be Done?, Lenin argued against a number of opponents who favored the “spontaneous” actions of the masses. These people argued that if the trade unions represented the most militant or revolutionary organizations which workers had created up to that point, revolutionaries had to defer to the trade unions as they represented the will of the workers. Lenin argued that the workers actually wanted to go beyond the trade union struggle, and that whenever they had the opportunity to learn about Marxist theory they listened eagerly. The workers wanted to go beyond the trade union struggle, but in a country like Russia, which was as vast in size as it was repressive in the arena of politics, they needed some kind of national organization which served as lines of communication while also protecting revolutionaries from the Tsar’s law enforcement organs.
There are many who argue that the existence of a party vanguard will inevitably lead to bureaucracy, elitism, and a “party” dictatorship. Their evidence is what actually happened in allegedly all self-proclaimed socialist nations. Reality is far more complicated than this, however. There is no doubt that bureaucracy and privilege existed in socialist societies, but these arose from a number of factors, many of which are inextricably bound up with the history of the Russian revolution or the historical conditions in existing in the nations in question. Struggles were waged against bureaucracy and party-based cronyism from within and without the party.
One technique developed by the Albanian socialists was to require political representatives to do a certain amount of productive labor in order to maintain their position. Given the presence of a technically proficient working class, the internet, wireless technology, and decades of historical experience, the vanguard party of the future would, after a successful revolution, have far less work to do. It need only provide theoretical guidance, see too defense of the socialist territory, and provide the lines of communication so that workers in every locality are able to make informed decisions. Speaking objectively, there is no reason to believe that a future socialist revolution would turn out exactly like the Russian Revolution of 1917 simply based on the presence of a vanguard party. Lenin’s vanguard party conformed mainly to the needs of that era; our vanguard party must necessarily conform the needs of our era.
The Vanguard & the Needs of the People
One typical argument against a centralized vanguard organization is that it cannot possibly know the needs of the people, and thus serve those needs, better than the people themselves. It is probably worth noting that this argument may come from self-styled “leftists,” but it is eerily similar to assertions made by capitalist apologists when they argue against government oversight and regulation.
We need only to look at the capitalist system to see that the ruling class has its own vanguard, and that this vanguard, in the form of a multi-party “democracy,” has done a fine job of serving our rulers’ interests for more than two centuries now. Capitalists do not rule our society directly; to do so would lead to disaster as capitalists in competition with each other, or branches of capitalists with conflicting interests would inevitably lead the whole country to destruction. This system of administering society indirectly through a party or parties has advanced and preserved the capitalist order quite well thus far. There is no reason to assume that the interests of the proletariat cannot be served via a vanguard party after smashing the organs of a capitalist state, other than, “Pyotr Kropotkin said so.”
In conclusion, it is far less “elitist” to suggest that the workers organize a party on their behalf, than to demand that they defer to some bourgeois party such as the Democrats. If the ruling class has their parties which fight for their interests above all else, workers are entitled to their own.
1) It is worth noting that elsewhere statements made by the First International or the International Working Men’s Association, endorsed by Marx and Engels, spoke of the need for a vanguard party. In the “Resolution on Working Class Political Action” during the September, 1871 London Conference, for example, we find the following text:
In presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working men, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it;
Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;
That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes;
That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists
The Conference recalls to the members of the International:
That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united.