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John Passant

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July 2012



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What is a vanguard party?

The critics of Leninism often characterize his conception of a revolutionary party as some sort of isolated sect. Nothing could be further from the truth writes Paul D’Amato in Socialist Worker US.

SOCIALISTS WHO consider themselves Leninists are often criticized for wanting to create a “vanguard party.”

To the extent that critics of Leninism are denouncing what is, in fact, a caricature of Lenin–that any vanguard party will be top down and autocratic–there’s little to be said. There are, no doubt, self-declared “vanguard” organizations of a few hundred people or less that lead nothing and repeat worn-out clichés.

But Lenin himself was a leader of a mass party in Russia that led a successful revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were a vanguard in the true sense of the word–not isolated cranks.

Lenin’s insistence on the need for a revolutionary party is based on the idea that the working class can’t be liberated by anyone standing over or outside its ranks. That’s why Lenin opposed individual terrorism, for example–since it created a passive majority waiting on a small minority to take action for them. He also rejected parliamentary socialism for viewing socialism as something accomplished by politicians on behalf of the working class.

In short, for Lenin–as for Karl Marx before him–the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. But there are obstacles to working-class self-emancipation. Otherwise, capitalism would have been done away with long ago.

The employers can depend on the state to use force to keep people in line when necessary. But often, force isn’t necessary–because the majority of people more or less accept society as it is. Simple inertia is built into the structure of society–because people can’t imagine things being any other way.

Plus, the competitive nature of the capitalist system can pit workers against each other. And there’s what Marx called “the ruling ideas of society”–pushed by the corporate-run media and schools to try to convince us that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

GIVEN THIS, workers have different degrees of consciousness about the possibility of change at any given moment. Some accept the profit system as the best system, while others reject it outright. Some reject racism in the name of solidarity among all workers, while others blame foreigners for their problems. This is why workers don’t change their ideas overnight.

Capitalism forces workers to fight–whether they’re gas workers in Chicago or autoworkers in Brazil. In the process of struggle, ideas of solidarity, equality and opposition to oppression come to the fore.

But workers don’t become aware of their position and power in society at the same time. Some move faster than others and are ready to take the lead. So, in any struggle, there will always be some kind of leadership. The question is what kind?

Without a clear alternative to the belief of most workers that they have to rely on others to change things for them, potentially revolutionary movements can be sidetracked by moderate leaders who want to keep the fight within the boundaries of existing society.

At the heart of Lenin’s concept of the “vanguard” party is the simple idea that working-class militants and other activists who have come to the conclusion that the whole system must be dismantled must come together into a single organization in order to centralize and coordinate their efforts against the system.

In his famous 1969 pamphlet Listen, Marxist! anarchist Murray Bookchin attacks Leninism, or a caricature of it, but then concludes:

[We] do not deny the need for coordination between groups, for discipline, for meticulous planning and for unity in action. But [we] believe that [these] must be achieved voluntarily, by means of self-discipline nourished by conviction and understanding, not by coercion and a mindless unquestioning obedience to orders from above.

Revolutionaries, Bookchin argues, must be organized to “present the most advanced demands” and “formulate the immediate tasks that should be performed to advance the revolutionary process,” providing “the boldest elements in action and in the decision-making organs of the revolution.”

Ironically, this sounds like a description of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party in 1917!

First published in the June 8, 2001, issue of Socialist Worker.



Comment from A
Time July 23, 2012 at 2:18 pm

good article. Also, i find interesting the idea of ‘ruling ideas of society’, which the author refers as a Marxist concept. I thought it was Gramscian. Can you please tell me where Marx wrote about such concept? Thank you.

Comment from John
Time July 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Marx in The German Ideology. ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Here is a link to it.

Comment from John
Time July 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Also Gramsci is firmly in the Marxist camp, but has been appropriated by Euro Communists and others incorrectly as part of their tradition.

Comment from Valentin Zorin
Time July 25, 2012 at 1:55 pm

This author either never read Lenin’s ‘What Is To Be Done” (1902), the classics of Marxist revisionism, or knowingly misrepresents Lenin’s ideas and practice of vanguardism. But the hell with this and other classics! How can a thinking person who saw the destruction of the Soviet Union and the decimation of its working class by the party and political system that Lenin and Trotsky created defend Lenin’s concept of party power over the working class ?! Lenin’s (and, yes, Trotsky’s) bourgeois ‘deviation’ goes against the core ideas of historical materialism. “Who will educate the educators?”

Comment from John
Time July 25, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Actually the author has read What is to be done. I suggest that you read Lars Lih magisterial book explaining Lenin the radical democrat and the best reading of What is to be done around. It is called Lenin Rediscovered – What Is To Be Done? in Context.

The working class was decimated not by the Bolsheviks but by the civil war, famine, foreign intervention and the failure of the revolution to spread internationally. Without a revolution in Germany we are lost Lenin once remarked. As to who will educate the educators – this Si first a misreading of what is to be done and secondly the class educates the party.

Here is a link to a review of Lih’s book. Here’s how the reviewer, John Molyneux, describes Lih’s analysis: ‘On this basis Lih argues: 1) that What Is To Be Done? was a relatively ephemeral document written in haste and not a considered programmatic or theoretical text from which major generalizations and conclusions about the essence of Leninism can legitimately be drawn; 2) that what Lenin advocated was not any new, distinct or special model of party organization, but merely the translation onto Russian soil of the practice of contemporary German Social Democracy ( which Lih calls Erfurtianism, after the Erfurt Congress at which the SPD adopted a Marxist programme – the Erfurt Programme); 3) that far from being an incipient totalitarian Lenin’s overriding political commitment at the time was to the struggle for political freedom and democracy, which Lenin, following Marx, Engels and German Social Democracy, regarded as the essential prerequisite for the development of the socialist workers’ movement; 4) that, of all the activists and theorists around at the time, Lenin was not the most skeptical, but the most enthusiastic, about the spontaneous struggles of Russian working class and their future potential and that his fear was that they would be let down by the intellectuals.’

Comment from Valentin Zorin
Time July 25, 2012 at 10:57 pm

With all due respect, the very form of your answer–sending your intellectual opponent to read a the book with politically correct conclusions–reflects ‘vanguardist’ mentality. After all, what if the book is wrong? You see, what puzzles me is the degree of conformism, the old sickness of the Left, that remains immune even to the ‘conclusions’ of such immense historical tragedies as that of the SU and world socialism. Anyway, thank you for publishing my comment.

Comment from John
Time July 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

The International Socialist Tendency doesn’t remain immune to the historical tragedy that was the USSR. The theory of state capitalism explains the reality of that barbarism. Yes Lars Lih’s book could be wrong, as could all the bayings of those who want to draw a conenction between an obscure early piece of Lenin’s writings and the rise of Stalin as a result of Lenin’s thought rather than to see Stalin as the gravedigger of the revolution who rose to power on the back of particular material conditions in the USSR in the 1920s. However the book is a meticulous academic study by someone not connected to an organisation of the Left which explodes that myth.

Comment from John
Time July 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm

And I am pleased to publish your comments. Feel free to respond, comment on other articles etc.

Comment from Valentin Zorin
Time July 26, 2012 at 11:32 pm

The next year after its publication that “obscure early work” (obscure for who?!) had led to the split of Russian social-democracy in London. It also projected the fundamental trajectory and methods of Lenin’s future party, and foreshadowed its hostile attitude to the self-organization of the working class and its suppression of the Soviets. This work had provided ‘theoretical’ justification for the absolute rule of a tiny group of people in the SU and elsewhere who were not accountable to anybody, least of all to the working class.

Yes, we all–I, Lih, Lenin,Cliff, and Marx himself can be wrong, especially the first four. Even the theory of state capitalism can be wrong, otherwise it’s not a theory but a divine dictum. This is self-evident and this is precisely what is wrong with vanguardist claims “to lead” on the basis of their superior “knowledge” ( “to lead” being a euphemism for having state power). For only the practical activity of a struggling class—Marx called it “revolutionary,” or “practical-critical activity” (first three theses on Feuerbach) –can be the criterion of truth and the process of transformation of class itself. Such practice is possible only by a politically sovereign working class. Lenin is uniquely responsible for suppressing the ‘practical-critical activity’ of Russian workers, Stalin and the rest of them being just his epigones at best.

Comment from John
Time July 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

Lenin’s party was responsible for helping Russian workers express during the revolution their ‘practical-critical activity’ and helping the class reach its immediate goal – all power to the soviets. More on this later on.

Comment from John
Time August 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Lenin didn’t suppress the Russian working class. It no longer existed as a consequnce of the War and Civil war.

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