Popular Vision and Vanguardism

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications…]

The current economic crisis has dealt a powerful blow to Milton Friedman’s socio-economic vision and the dogma, propounded by followers of the Chicago School movement – there is no alternative – that has helped maintain it. [1]  As a result people everywhere are more open to consider alternative social systems.  This has created a great opportunity for the Left to regain popular support amongst the general public.  However, the Left have not been able to take full advantage of the situation due to an inability to address weaknesses in old Left theory and practice.  Below I offer some suggestions on how we might transcend these problems and move towards developing a comprehensive program for radical progressive social transformation.


The Masses and the Conscious Minority:

Nowadays the notion of a vanguard is usually associated with Marxism – or more precisely with what are seen as the negative, authoritarian and elitist aspects of Marxism-Leninism.  History however reveals that the theory of vanguardism has actually been put into practice right across the revolutionary left spectrum.  The anarchist historian Daniel Guerin, for example, writes that "Although he had become an anarchist, Bakunin remained convinced of the need for a conscious vanguard" quoting Bakunin as saying "For revolution to triumph over reaction the unity of revolutionary thought and action must have an organ in the midst of the popular anarchy which will be the very life and the source of all the energy of the revolution." [2] 

Both Marxists and anarchists understand that the revolutionary potential resides within the masses.  However, they both also recognise that there is an unevenness in the level of class consciousness amongst the masses due to the fact that the dominant ideas in any society are those of the dominant classes. [3]  It is the recognition of this reality by Marxists and anarchists that makes them both understand the need for a vanguard of organisers if the revolution is to move in the right direction and be sustained to the point of completion.  According to Guerin however, for the anarchists the role of the vanguard is to "enlighten rather than to direct" and it is this strategic distinction, perhaps more than any other issue, that has torn the revolutionary left apart. 

Marxist-Leninists argue that a successful revolution requires the conscious minority to organise into a vanguard party which functions along democratic centralist lines.  This is necessary, they say, "because the ruling class is highly centralised" and "If you are not symmetrical to your enemy you can never win". [4]  They also point out that "History has shown, time and again, that workers rise up spontaneously and, in the process of making a revolution, become conscious as a class", however "History also shows us that workers need a coherent theory and organisation in order to chart their way from their initial uprising to being able to run their own workers’ state …"  "The task of a revolutionary party" they conclude "is to provide that theory and organisation." [5] 

This strategy is of course highly controversial.  For one thing we may not be all that surprised to see that the outcome of a revolution that models itself "symmetrically" on its "enemy" turns out to duplicate many of the horrible social features that were in place during the pre-revolutionary period.  This, of course, is what we saw with the Russian Revolution. 

Apologists for Bolshevik tyranny may argue that the Russian Revolution degenerated because of external factors – like the resulting civil war and the isolation due to the failure of the revolution to spread to Europe. [6]  However, a simple institutional analysis reveals inherent dangers in the strategy of organising the vanguard into a democratic centralist party. 

Organising the vanguard into a "highly centralised" party mean institutionalising a hierarchical division of labour.  In turn this means that those elected to the centre get to monopolise empowering tasks within the party / movement.  As a result of this arrangement any discussions that occur within the party will most likely be dominated by those at the centre.  Over time this arrangement will most likely foster an anti-participatory culture as the democratic process becomes ever more meaningless.  What we tend to see as an outcome of this strategy is the elevation of a professional-managerial class who come to dominate the revolutionary process whilst the working class continue in their traditional role of carrying-out orders sent down from above. 

This is not to say that the external conditions the Bolsheviks were up-against during the Russian Revolution had no negative impact on the outcome of the revolution.  Rather, the point is that regardless of external circumstances, the internal dynamic of a vanguard party organised along democratic centralist lines actually reinforce and accentuate the divide between the conscious minority and the masses which invariably lead to new forms of class dominance.

Such an understanding first requires a class consciousness not only of the working and capitalists classes but also that of the professional-managerial class.  However, as one commentator has pointed out –

Unfortunately, for all its emphasis on class analysis, Marxism blinded many fighting against the economics of competition and greed to important antagonisms between the working class and the new, professional managerial, or coordinator class. [7]

Another controversial claim made by advocates of the democratic centralist vanguard party is that of the supposedly  "spontaneous" nature of the uprisings by the workers.  As we have seen this is a crucial part of the argument that justifies the need to organise the vanguard into a party.  Presumably this is because organising into a party gives the vanguard much more power over the masses allowing them greater opportunities to overcome inconsistencies within the movement and guidance over the revolutionary process. However, as it turns out, the claim that these worker uprisings are spontaneous is something of a myth –

The rural "soviets" that later formed the spearhead for the revolution and land reform in Russia were not creations of Mensheviks or Bolsheviks – who were virtually unknown in the Russian countryside prior to 1917 – but the fruits of decades of organising by different groups of rural Russian libertarian socialists.  Nor did the rural soviets spontaneously appear from the untutored consciousness of the exploited peasant "masses" without organisational precedent.  Rural soviets only appeared suddenly and acted decisively because the idea of radical land reform had been nurtured for decades in most Russian villages by Narodniki, anarchists, and cadre from the Left Social Revolutionary Party, and because villages with battle-tested leadership already existed to form the backbone of the rural soviets." [8]

Perhaps not surprisingly, and for rather obvious ideological reasons, advocates of Bolshevik style strategy play down or entirely ignore these historical findings.  Clearly the fact that the vanguard can so effectively organise without forming itself into a party greatly damages the Marxist argument.  As we shall see however, the Marxist argument is to some extent reprieved by the failings of the anarchist proposals. 

Whilst the anarchist conception of the vanguard may be seen by some as less controversial than that of the Marxists it has to be said that it has been no more successful in bringing about a social revolution.  Inspired by the ideas of Bakunin, the anarcho-syndicalists during the Spanish Civil War, for example, organised themselves into the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) which operated as an ideologically conscious minority  inside the National Confederation of Labour (CNT).  According to Guerin, however, this anarchist vanguard did not "perform its part of guide very well, being clumsy and hesitant about its tutelage over the trade unions, irresolute in its strategy, and more richly endowed with activists and demagogues than with revolutionaries as clear-thinking on the level of theory as on that of practice."  Guerin concludes from all of this –

Relations between the masses and the conscious minority constitutes a problem to which no full solution has been found by the Marxists or even by the anarchists, and one on which it seems that the last word has not yet been said. [9]


What is to be (re)Done?

Here I would like to suggest that the main reason for the misguided organising by the Marxists and dysfunctional organising by the anarchists throughout the twentieth century was, to a large extent, due to a lack of any clearly defined long-term objectives.  We may speculate further and consider the possibility that if the Marxist and anarchist vanguard had focused their energies more on developing shared vision then the initial split within the revolutionary left may never have occurred. 

The split within the revolutionary left was (and still is) essentially over strategy.  Marxist and anarchist develop strategy from their understanding of what is wrong with society and therefore focus on what they are against – anti-capitalist, anti-government etc.  But if they had also focused their attention on developing shared vision the strategy the vanguard developed would have been informed not only by the reality on the ground but also by their long term vision.  We may therefore conclude that the strategy the vanguard developed would have been different. 

Take for example the idea of the vanguard party.  We have already seen how dangerous this strategy can be when organised along democratic centralist lines.  However, we might find that a vanguard party with an internal structure informed by our long-term vision could prove a very effective form of organisation. [10]  We may also consider the potential of a network of trade union activists empowered with a shared vision organising inside the labour movement.  A network of trade union actives organising inside the workplace along side a political party organising inside the community, both advocating the same long-term objectives, could prove a very powerful force for radical-progressive social transformation. 

The addition of shared vision as part of a comprehensive program for social transformation address the weaknesses we identified earlier in revolutionary left strategy.  But, perhaps more importantly, a strategy informed by our shared vision will also minimise the dangers of the gap between the conscious minority and the masses increasing and becoming a permanent fixture. 

Both political parties and trade union networks could be used, along side others, as vehicles to popularise the vision.  As the vision becomes more widely known and understood the gap between the active minority and the passive majority is reduced.  Therefore the dynamic of this strategy would be for the vanguard to expand into an ever more popular movement. 

Unfortunately such proposals are typically rejected by the revolutionary left.  The development of shared vision tends to be dismissed by Marxists on the grounds that it is unscientific and utopian whereas the anarchists tend to avoid such tactics because they see it as inherently elitist and authoritarian.  Most people today understand that the dismissal, by Marxists, of developing shared vision is based on the false claim that Marxism is itself scientific.  This claim has, for decades, acted as an intellectual barrier to the development of popular vision.  But now that Marxism’s claim of being scientific has been exposed as mere ideology we can get on with the important task of developing a set of shared long term objectives.  Also, as we shall see, developing shared vision does not need to be elitist and authoritarian but instead can be a participatory process based on common sense.


A Common Sense Approach to Developing Shared Vision:

It is fashionable amongst global justice activists to respond to Margaret Thatcher’s TINA doctrine – there is no alternative – by asserting, "one no, many yeses" or, "there are thousands of alternatives".  However, any serious enquiry into our actual options is likely to reveal that they are a lot more limited than these slogans suggest. [11] 

Society is a complicated system.  To try and make sense of it we must first break it down into its component parts.  For example we can identify a number of "spheres" that go to make-up society – the political, economic, kinship and community spheres.  These spheres are present in all human societies and of course exist within the greater ecosystem.  We can also identify two fundamental networks that go to make up each sphere. The first is human beings with all our wants and needs, our skills and levels of consciousness.  The second are institutions with all of their structures and rules. 

Now that we have broken society down into more manageable component parts we need to specify the basic function of each sphere.  Take for example the economic sphere.  Its primary functions are – production, consumption and allocation.  Different economic systems will perform these primary functions in different ways.  What determines any diversity of economic systems is the values that underlie the different modes of production, consumption and allocation. 

So, we have three primary functions that all economic systems have to perform.  We can now ask: What are our options for production consumption and allocation?  The following are more specific questions regarding these primary economic functions –

•One obvious arrangement that greatly impacts on the type of economy we end up with is that of ownership.  What are our options for ownership?

•Another important issue that determines different economic systems is that of decision-making authority.  What are our options for decision-making?

•The question of workplace structure also impacts on the type of economy we have.  What are our options for workplace structure?

•We also need to consider differing criteria for remuneration.  What are our options for rewarding people for their economic activity?

•One other very important aspect of any economic model is its chosen means of allocating product.  What are our options for allocating goods and services?

We can come-up with a number of answers to these questions but the number will be limited.  Take for example the question of ownership.  There are only three basic options – Private, State or Collective ownership for us to choose from.  Or consider our options for decision-making authority.  Here, yet again, we can identify three basic options – Autocracy, democratic centralism or self-management.  Of course, we have to be open to other new options being proposed in the future, but for now these are our options. 

So we can see that our actual options are in fact quite limited.  However, they become even more limited when we realise that for our economic model to function each of our answers needs to be compatible with each other.  Consider for example our options so far –

Ownership – Private or State or Collective?

Decision-making – Autocratic or Democratic centralism or Self-management?

If we choose private ownership we can not then choose self-management as our option for decision-making for the simple reason that they are incompatible – they undermine each other.  So whatever answers we give to the above questions they also need to be compatible with each other which reduces our actual options for possible economic systems even further. 

At the end of this process we should end-up with a small number of economic models to choose from.  Which model we choose will be determined by our values which are commonly held amongst radical-progressives and mostly uncontroversial. 

The same process can be employed to develop vision for the other social spheres.  However we can not develop vision for each sphere in isolation without consideration of how that sphere impacts on other spheres as well as the ecosystem.  Just as each component part of the economy needs to be compatible with each other so too must the different social spheres complement each other as well as be sustainable. 


 In the first part of this essay I highlighted the point that historically the need for a vanguard was understood right across the revolutionary Left spectrum.  I also highlighted the continuing problem faced by the revolutionary Left – whether libertarian or authoritarian – of the role of the vanguard, its form and function, and how it interacts with the general public.  I then went on to suggest that a possible reason for this ongoing problem is due to a failure, by the revolutionary Left, to develop shared vision.  I argue that the rejection, by Marxists and anarchists, to focus on long term objectives has only helped maintain the original split within the revolutionary Left movement.  Finally I sketched out an approach to developing shared vision that could help overcome this historic split.  If such an approach did work this could open-up new possibilities for organising a popular movement with a real sense of direction that could become an effective challenge to hegemony.





[1] For a good account of this movement see Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

[2] Daniel Guerin – Anarchism.

[3] For an account of how this is achieved in contemporary democratic societies see Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model presented in Manufacturing Consent. 

[4] Tony Cliff – Marxism at the Millennium.

[5] Lindsey German – Why We Need A Revolutionary Party.

[6] For an example see John Rees’s – In Defence of October.

[7] Robin Hahnel – Economic Justice and Democracy.

[8] Robin Hahnel – Economic Justice and Democracy.

[9] Daniel Guerin – Anarchism.

[10] For an example of what this new vanguard party might look like visit www.zcomm.org/blog/view/2614

[11] For a more thorough exploration onto developing societal vision see Michael Albert’s Thinking Forward available on-line at www.zcomm.org/zparecon/tfintro.htm


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