The Problem with Vanguards

The Current Situation

The ‘party’ is simply this organised collectivity that allows a ‘we’ to form and act decisively.”

Donald Parkinson, Without a Party, We Have Nothing

Recent debates amongst the left have revitalised the need to discuss the old organisation question again.1 Now more than ever, it is more relevant to answer this question since it is only through political organisations that the working class becomes a political class and a class for itself. This piece justifies the necessity for the most crucial form of organisation: the party of the proletariat.

We need a political party to merge scientific socialism — as in Marxist theory and the organised communists — with the existing self-organisation of the working class movement. If kept apart, they are each weak on their own. This merger is necessary to raise the working class’s awareness of its world-historic mission to win the battle for democracy and communism, to elevate political struggle to the terrain of high politics, and to contest hegemony with the state. However, this party must have a specific relation to the worker movement to successfully bring the ‘good news’ of communism to the working class and raise its awareness to a political one. It cannot be a broad party uniting everyone under a “left” banner and embracing unprincipled unity for a small electoral percentage. As Chris Strafford argues, while in principle, there is nothing wrong with communists working with others, elevating this partial unity into permanent coalitions and parties only ends up in practice with the revolutionary wing silencing itself or moving rightwards to prevent splits. It cannot be a sect party either, uniting a small clique of ‘revolutionaries’ under strict adherence to the cult of personality of one or two theorists, substituting the political practice of a class with activities like selling newspapers at demonstrations. As rightly argued by Sai Englert, this kind of party-building focuses more on an organisation’s reproduction than on building the democratic counter-hegemonic apparatus we desperately need.

To be called a party ‘of the proletariat’, the revolutionary party needs to have a different relation to the worker movement; it must be a mass-vanguard party. Its mass character comes from being an open, democratic organisation that aims to bring the ‘good news’ of communism to the working-class majority. The mass character ensures it can engage with the working class, winning the majority to its programme. Its vanguard character comes from containing the part of the working class equipped with a scientific analysis of society and its history while being at the forefront of any struggle against oppression and exploitation as tribunes of the oppressed. These two characteristics do not contradict but necessitate each other. The division between mass and vanguard parties resulted from the long history of the worker movement and our famous misreadings of it2. Maintaining this distinction now creates two equally impotent varieties of political parties: parties still stuck within the logic of Labourist hegemony and electoral opportunism on the one hand and, on the other, parties preoccupied with their “imaginary Lenin” and unable to engage substantially with the workers’ movement beyond the odd recruitment drive.

The Function of Vanguards

Becoming a party is not crossing a certain numerical threshold or passing certain structural benchmarks or being recognised as such by the state. It is not something one declares, but something one does.”

Salar Mohandesi, Party as Articulator

We need to look at the party, not by asking whether it has a place in our movement — to echo Rodrigo Nunes’s argument, if parties exist, they have a place in the worker movement3 — the question becomes instead their role. What are the mass-vanguard party’s functions? What does it do within the worker movement? I have narrowed it down to two functions — vanguard as an educator and vanguard as a coordinator — to illustrate the party’s role in raising class awareness within the worker movement and how it relates to the worker movement as a class organiser.

Vanguard as an Educator

The first function, the educator function, comes from seeing a vanguard as a specific relation in terms of class awareness. It allows the proletariat to raise its awareness, understand the cause of its exploitation, and see an alternative to the existing order. This function depends on the following wager: Do all workers come to socialist awareness all at once, or do some of them, the vanguard, come to socialist awareness in advance? If the latter, what are the reciprocal relations between the vanguard and the rest of the class to intentionally ensure that the entire class is becoming conscious? Suppose we cannot guarantee the growth of class awareness through the contradictions of capitalism. In that case, we aim to create the infrastructure needed to facilitate the collective learning process, which will raise the awareness of the working class as a whole. Creating this space of mass pedagogy is crucial not only to ensure that knowledge gets democratised across the worker movement but also that it is, in terms of ideological hegemony, independent from the influence of bourgeois ideologies.

The revolutionary party is the collective memory of the history of class struggle. It is a living archive of accumulated knowledge, preparing the present working class for future battles based on the lessons of the past. By engaging in mass pedagogy based on the accumulated experiences of the class struggle and constantly reproducing this relation by expanding this position of the vanguard to a larger and larger section of the class, the political party spreads socialist awareness in every part of the worker movement. It, therefore, abolishes any privileged status of a permanent vanguard relation. This pedagogical function orients the growing vanguard to a struggle for hegemony, drawing lines of demarcation in theoretical and political practices against deviations or currents that prevent the worker movement from realising its world-historic task. The ultimate goal is to democratise socialist knowledge within the worker movement and make the proletariat aware of its world-historic mission.

Vanguard as a Coordinator

The second function, the coordinator function, comes from seeing a vanguard as a specific relation in terms of the political practice of the worker movement — something which helps to unite the worker movement and gives the capacity to strategise collectively. The party provides this coordinating role through theorising communist programmes. These programmes clarify the struggles of the working class in the present and raise political and economic demands that unite the working class into a battle for hegemony. Such a party would take deliberate steps to ensure the growth of political awareness of the working class through its continuous engagement with the worker movement. It can then be seen not as an external force substituting its activity for that of the class but as a strategic weapon that emerges from the necessity to merge the existing self-activity of the working class with communist strategy. Being a vanguard then becomes a relational function within the movement, which opens up paths for the movement to follow beyond its daily or momentary struggles.

The struggle of the working class necessitates building democratic organisations that can stand for the independent interests of the working class and allow them to take political power. These organisations are needed both to shield the working class from the state’s hegemony and to ensure present economic struggles do not get isolated within their respective spheres of the movement but become universal as a struggle to conquer political power. The party thus ensures continuity and solidarity across different struggles, countering attempts by various ideological state apparatuses to erase or co-opt them. This defensive mechanism is achieved by intentionally linking its coordinating infrastructure with every liberation struggle against oppression and exploitation, both nationally and internationally, orienting them towards communist political struggle. The political party provides the worker movement with the tools needed to replace the existing order through the articulation of political programmes and the establishment of counter-hegemonic institutions that connect various struggles of the working class and, until then, act as a tribune to expose the undemocratic nature of the existing order.

Vanguards & Unity

“The point is not that the party is the whole of the movement. It is that we need a party, and currently do not have one.”

Mike Macnair, We need political action

The last two sections of this article have focused entirely on what the party does. The history of the worker movement has shown, however, that we cannot assume that random far-left groups can start declaring themselves as the “Communist Party”, write a political programme and that in and of itself will be able to build a mass movement organically. Especially here in Britain, quite the opposite has happened: endless varieties of party sects or broad parties declare themselves as the revolutionary representatives of the working class and are entirely out of touch with the worker movement. Therefore, we need to draw lessons from our history on what kind of party institutions and culture are required for the party to fulfil its essential functions.

The mass vanguard party needs unity under a shared revolutionary programme to build the pedagogical relations necessary to raise the political awareness of its class and to create the organic links within the worker movement to present a political alternative to the existing order. For that to happen, we must reject both the party sect’s theoretical unity and the broad unity with the reformist wing of the worker movement. To overcome broad unity, we must strive only for partial unity with reformist forces to obtain specific political demands and not attempt to elevate this partial unity into a need to organise into the same party. In terms of theoretical unity — we need the party institutions that subordinate the bureaucrats to the membership to reject this. For the party to retain its ability to elevate the awareness of the class and unite its struggle under a revolutionary programme, it must allow the membership to organise independently of its full-timers. In practice, any elected role has a specific mandate, is recallable, and has specific term limits. The membership also has the freedom to organise in factions.

The right to organise permanent factions is necessary first to allow the membership to organise within the party against the political lines of the elected officials if needed. Second, the struggle between different tendencies ensures that the party embeds itself within the political struggles and demands of various sections of the working class and can allow all differences of opinion within the working class a chance to be heard and unite under a political programme. Political factions and debate, therefore, should not only be allowed within or around the same period of party congresses but, through permanent factions, create a culture of debate and polemic worthy of its task to unite the working class. Unity of the existing organised communists under a party, to paraphrase Lenin, cannot be decreed; it must be worked for! Only the existence of permanent factions can ensure the development of a revolutionary democratic organisation that can maintain connections with the struggles of the working class and be able to deliver a genuinely revolutionary political programme.

For the party membership to unite in diversity and subordinate its officials, it must follow a specific set of democratic republican principles when building and running its organisations. It must be organised around the principle of liberty as non-domination, meaning that no position within an organisation must be permanent, and each position must be electable under a term limit and a mandate by the membership. It also means that there should be no roadblocks which deny the participation or election of any member to any full-time position, based on the insistence on the inclusion of all of the working class to join and organise their platforms to voice their opinion within the party’s structures.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the necessity for a mass-vanguard party within the worker movement is paramount. Such a party serves dual functions: as an educator, spreading socialist awareness and historical consciousness throughout the working class, and as a coordinator, providing strategic unity and direction to various struggles against oppression and exploitation. This concept of a mass-vanguard party starkly contrasts with both broad coalitions devoid of ideological cohesion and narrow sects fixated on doctrinal purity. Instead, it embodies a dynamic unity in diversity, allowing for the engagement of diverse struggles and perspectives within a framework of democratic principles. The necessity of these principles follows from the liberties the party membership needs to coordinate inside its organisation while keeping control of their full-timers. These principles follow the lessons of centuries of communist politics4.

Crucially, the mass-vanguard party’s role is not one of parliamentary cretinism or substitution but instead of facilitating and empowering the working class itself. It acts as a conduit for collective action, ensuring that the proletariat emerges as a politically conscious and unified force capable of challenging the existing state order. Thus, the task ahead lies in cultivating a party that embodies the working class’s aspirations and struggles while remaining true to democracy, unity, and revolutionary socialism.

Without building such a party that can serve as a laboratory of mass intellectuality and raise the awareness of the working class, without the organisational infrastructure and political authority that can provide an alternative to the existing state, we will only fall back into the Groundhog Day of the existing left: the localist eclecticism of the small theory circles, the broad unity and electoral triangulation of the Labour adjacent left or another iteration of the “People’s Front of Judea versus Judean People’s Front” of the ‘revolutionary’ sects5. To paraphrase Gramsci: The old world is dying; now is the time for mass-vanguard parties.

References

  1. In particular in Notes from Below, Issue 19: The Political Leap: Communist Strategy Today, and in the Communaut organisation debates, which can be followed on the Angry Workers site in three parts here, here and here ↩︎
  2. Lars T. Lih. (2008) ‘Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ in Context’. Haymarket. ↩︎
  3. Rodrigo Nunes. (2021) ‘Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization‘. Verso. ↩︎
  4. Mike Macnair offers a much more detailed analysis of the successes and failures of the existing left to justify this democratic republicanism than this piece aims to provide. Mike Macnair. (2008), ‘Revolutionary Strategy’., 2008. ↩︎
  5. Mike Macnair, Blind leading the blind: https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1453/blind-leading-the-blind/ ↩︎