Rejecting the “Vanguard” Party

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Fred Bustillo

IN THE SEPTEMBER-October, 1999 issue of Against the Current (#82), Sam Farber’s review of Daniel Singer’s book Whose Millennium? deserves a few comments.

Like Farber, Singer and numerous other revolutionaries, I also reject the Leninist concept of the “vanguard party.” As you probably know, it was not Lenin who authored the concept that working people can attain only trade union consciousness as a result of their own practical activity, the material basis of the vanguard concept as defined in What Is To Be Done?

The vanguard concept can be traced directly to Karl Kautsky, known as the pope of Marxism, to Ferdinand Lasalle and to others associated historically with German Social Democracy during the height of the Second International — an honor that more precisely belongs to Lasalle.

In any case, Farber seems to agree with Singer that the type of organization proposed by him (Singer) is a superior form to those political parties that seek to absorb the entire social movements. Farber’s only objection to the type of political formation proposed by Singer as “the provisional party” is that Singer avoids the pressing question of leadership.

I see such a proposal, however, as being identical in a limited sense to the vanguard concept which is being rejected. If we understand that political parties, whether mass or vanguard parties, are simple “class instruments,” the proposals by Singer and Farber ignore the central question posed by the Council Communists during Lenin’s time.

That is, when it comes to productive activity, the working class at the point of production must maintain absolute power and control after the revolution and seizure of state power. A similar conclusion was reached by Marx in The Civil War in France, upon finding that the Commune was “the form at last discovered to work out the economic emancipation of the proletariat.”

We can safely assume now a similar conclusion that the Soviets (workers’ councils) were the proper form during Lenin’s and Trotsky’s time to realize the emancipation of the Russian working masses. This very proposition, put forth by Lenin in the “April Theses,” was opposed at the time by the majority of Bolsheviks (including Stalin). Political empowerment ultimately remained beyond the reach of the Russian working class.

On the other hand, comparing the development of class organization historically — from slavery to feudalism and from feudalism to capitalism — with the present-day self-development of the working class as a class-for-itself, shows a parallel development.

Historically we can see that the ruling classes, as a result of exercising absolute control over production, became the subject. Thus, the feudal lords and then the young bourgeoisie became the ruling classes in the womb of the old society as a result of natural self-development — a natural progressive revolutionary movement as subjective self-development, even though the principal actors did not perceive the revolution as history being a “conscious self-mediating process.”

Political parties that represented these varied class interests came later, after these classes had matured and evolved into ruling classes. The vanguard concept, in whole or in diluted form, inverts that historical process; and by asserting absolute control over the productive forces, the “Party” seeks to replace the working class as the historical “subject.”

An essential component missing from most of those aborted revolutions calling themselves “Communist” is the political maturity of the working class as a consciously self-mediating entity that presents itself as the principal dialectic in and for itself that brings about the transition to socialism and a new society.

At the present time I see trade unionism despite its present fatalistic outlook, the creation of worker-owned cooperatives in Brazil, Spain, Italy and other countries, as natural self-movement within the working classes in the process of becoming the historical subject for as long as class society exists, and exercising absolute control over the productive forces in the new society.

Once the working class moves to that position of control, the vanguard party concept is totally negated, and the problem of leadership perceived by Farber is similarly resolved. The mass party which the masses will undoubtedly create has no other option but to serve the class that controls production or negate its own working existence.

I see this organization question as a very pressing one within the left throughout the world, and I am hoping that Against the Current will deal the issue in more depth in future articles. In light of what happened in the former Soviet Union, China and other countries calling themselves “Socialist,” the organization question demands proper attention and resolution.

Assuming that the “First” world, the United States, Canada and European Union establish a genuine socialist system, then it would be an academic issue for the Second and Third world countries to establish socialism as a result of movement from any vanguard party or the grassroots. In any other scenario the “vanguard concept” appears to be totally bankrupted, and has served as a noose around
the neck of working people.

Any critical commentary by you or Farber will be greatly appreciated. The guards confiscated my ink pens to subvert my litigation before the federal courts. More later.

ATC 86, May-June 2000