Autor: Emil

~ 28/12/11

-Originally posted at Revleft on 25th September 2011-

This post  was originally written for another forum. Given that the topic of vanguardism comes up again and again, I thought it would be good reposting it here:

I agree with RedStar’s second article (tl;dr on his first, but I’m aware what demarchy is and think it is a great idea).

First of all, an explanation of the term “vanguard” is in order. Often it is portrayed as meaning something along the lines of “a communist party being the leadership of the working class”, etc yadda yadda. This is plain wrong.

So, what is a vanguard? The working class is not a homogenous bloc of workers all thinking the same about politics. As anyone with an ounce of life experience knows, some workers are more “aware” than others. Others think that the Tea Party is a great idea… But some are clearly more farsighted and stand above the majority in experience or political conclusions. These people are the pillars that make or break any action of workers as a collective force (for example, a strike).

Nothing controversial so far, I have yet to meet one anarchist that disagrees with this conception of reality.

So, what then is the controversy? It is this idea that “Leninists” (a terrible misnomer by the way) have that we need to reach out to these layers of advanced workers and unite them in one organisation, a political party (or federation, or whatever you like to call it…). A vanguard party.

The orthodox Marxists around Karl Kautsky had this idea that we needed to organise the whole class before we could take power. How? By building a vanguard party, which stands at the head of a mass movement of the entire working class. This party-movement was to much more than a mere “political party” as we would understand the term today, much more than a vote-raising apparatus. It set itself the goal of raising the working class as a class in its own right, a collective entity aware of itself. This included alternative culture institutions, such as workers sports clubs and food banks for example.

Lenin in Russia build on this model in Russian conditions, that is, under police state Tsarist rule. Without this context one cannot understand what Lenin tried to do and you could end up with totally wrong conclusions about having an underground party apparatus which is highly centralised under a present day western bourgeois democracy… An absurdity.

This brings us to “democratic centralism”, a topic that often airs when talking about vanguard parties. Often there is the misconception that this means that one has to loyally follow the party line and defend this in public. A closer examination of how the Marxist movement internationally worked up until (at least) 1921 learns how completely wrong this view is. It was common practice in parties to have multiple publications (as opposed to one), the German SPD before 1914 had hundreds and even the Russian RSDLP had dozens of daily publications, under the Tsar’s censor.

These papers were the life and air of the movement as these were the focal point of many polemical debates between activists (in and outside the RSDLP) on the matter of tactics, strategy, programme and theory.

This leaves us to question the current state of the left: Why are we so different from these traditions of open debates? If you look in a typical leftist paper these days you’ll see endless reports on this or that demo, the latest union news or how we need to fight, but rarely if ever you see an article disagreeing with what is considered “common sense”. No debates on tactics or strategy, let alone theory or programme.

I see multiple reasons for this, which are interlinked. One is a certain tradition the current far left inherited, be it in defense of the Russian revolution (and it counter-revolutionry aftermath, i.e. the stalinists, the trotskyists, the left-communists) or against it (the anarchists). A second reason is our current size, we are tiny and quite insignificant today. This means we cannot organise as a mass movement.

There are no fixed formulas for communist organisation, it depends on the circumstances you work in and on the size you happen to be. For the mostly tiny grouplets that exist today for example, it would be quite pointless to implement a demarchic mechanism as this only works with large groups (think at least in thousands). What needs to be central though, and I agree here with RS2k, is that any group has to be explicitly communist. Concretely I believe this to mean that it at least has to have the basic principles of: democracy, internationalism and an independent position of the working class. All the rest, as far as I’m concerned, is open for debate.

Said otherwise: I disagree with Maoists on many fronts, but if they can agree with those three principles (which may by the way be a problem…) then I’d argue we should be in one organisation and stand for united action, as long as I can publically disagree with whatever nonsense tactic my Maoist comrade has come up with today.

One alternative term for “democratic centralism” might be “unity in disagreement”. Organisationally we stand as one against the capitalists, but we have to “agree to disagree”, to coin a phrase.

Now, what is the point of public disagreement, you may ask? A good question! And it needs some understanding of the position of the party within the wider class movement. In other words, its vanguard position.

You see, the vanguard – while consisting of the most advanced sections of the working class – is not a homogeneous bloc either. Life experiences, differing ideas, the job a person has, its gender, “race”, etc, all play a role in which positions one takes politically. Naturally these differences are also reflected inside the party and debates are therefore concrete concerns of the wider working class movement. These concerns get translated into debates on tactics, strategy, programme and theory and because of their concreteness matter to the wider working class. The party thus is a crystallisation point of political debate of the whole class and feedback ensures that results of debates get tested and feeded back into the ongoing debate. This way, and only this way, can a scientifically correct political line be established.

The old Marxist movement of Lenin et al understood this. Remember what I said about the SPD having hundreds of daily publications and the RSDLP having dozens? Many of these publications were centered around factional disputes. These publications were important and established the communists as the political leadership of the class. Not through enforcement, but through debate and being relevant to the needs of people. Today a “faction” however seems to synonymous with “a split in preparation”…

This leaves the question of how do we get from our current disposition of sectarian grouplets to the genuine class movement. I’ll leave that for further discussion here 🙂

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