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The role of a revolutionary vanguard party
Updated from an earlier Marxism Today article
by Bill F. (May 2014)
Most people who are serious about the need for revolutionary change in Australia agree that the working class is the main force, and that the working class needs its own revolutionary organisation.
Marxist-Leninists seek to build a revolutionary vanguard party as the ideological, political and organisational leadership of the working class. Here we look at some of the characteristics of a revolutionary vanguard party and examine how these differ from other models sometimes put forward.
An organisation of revolutionaries
A key feature is Lenin’s concept of a ‘vanguard’ party consisting of ‘professional’ revolutionaries dedicated to organising and leading the working class through its inevitable economic and political struggles.
Revolutionary work should be carried out in a way that steadily develops the political consciousness of the working class. Political consciousness empowers workers to understand the economic and political features of their particular society, their class position in that society and the need to ultimately overthrow the dominant class rulers of the society, rather than merely pursuing day to day narrow economic interests.
To provide the necessary leadership for this to happen, it follows that party members must study and really grasp the essence of Marxist ideology and philosophy. It is not enough just to be ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ or even ‘militant’ without a depth of understanding of Marxism.
Depth does not mean theoretical understanding alone, although familiarity with fundamental concepts is essential. It means being able to interpret events from a class standpoint, being able to apply the Marxist method of dialectical analysis to all sorts of struggles, situations and people. It means finding ways to advance the political awareness of workers in struggle and the class as a whole. It means finding ways to mobilise workers into activities and actions where they can learn from their own experience the real nature of the class system that exploits and oppresses them.
It means every comrade must become an active contributor, taking responsibility and being accountable to the collective. Some may have the time, capacity and opportunity to contribute more than others, but all play their part in advancing the Party Program. In this revolutionary party Lenin noted, “…all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, and certainly distinctions of trade and profession, must be utterly obliterated.” (What is to be Done 1902)
Most other models of revolutionary organisation do not require such high individual and collective standards from the membership. Some put forward the concept of a ‘mass revolutionary party’ which usually means that anyone can join, whether or not they are activists or just active when they feel like it, or are merely passive supporters.
Seemingly anti-elitist, this concept ensures that the membership is quickly sorted in tiers, with the leadership dominated by a small group of well-read and articulate intellectuals rather than both workers and intellectuals working and learning alongside each other in struggle.
Mass line method of political work
Another key feature of a revolutionary vanguard party is the way in which it conducts its political work amongst the workers and the masses.
The starting point must always be investigation, both academic and practical. Mao Zedong put it bluntly enough, “No investigation, no right to speak.” In other words, listen to people, seek the facts and don’t just charge in with preconceived ideas. Knowledge must be connected to practice and this demands research, study and understanding of the principal and secondary contradictions in society.
After investigation, sort out the main contradiction from the secondary ones. Sort out the strengths and weaknesses of the forces involved, the people’s forces and the enemy’s forces. Sort out the tactics of struggle most likely to involve the mass of workers or people in struggle, and work to win support for this. At all times, promote unity around the main demands, be where the struggle is hardest, build networks of allies and encourage natural leaders from the ranks of the masses.
In the aftermath of struggle, whether successful or not, be there to assist in summing up and drawing out the main lessons from people’s experience. In this way, comrades can move the level of political consciousness to a higher level.
This style of political work is not easy. It requires comrades to have close and regular involvement with people over a prolonged period of time, whether in the workplace, community or in particular issue organisations.
In contrast to this, the style of some petty-bourgeois radical groups is to set up a headquarters and drag people away from their natural circles into a ‘left’ hothouse. They hobnob with trade union officials and ‘left’ personalities. Some even blow in on activities organised by others and push their newspapers, leaflets and badges promoting often completely different issues. Such behaviour only alienates people and gives a bad name to ‘socialists’ and the ‘left’ generally.
Democratic centralism is also a key feature of a vanguard party. It is characterised by a high level of self-discipline based on an understanding that the role of a Communist is to serve the people and to recognise the importance of the collective, not to seek personal gains.
Decision-making is carried out through systems of democratic consultation and democratic voting. Once a decision has been made, there is an obligation on all members to carry it out. Dissenting minority views can be reserved and re-presented on a future occasion, but in the meantime, all members are expected to unite and work to implement democratically agreed decisions.
It was plainly put by Mao Zedong in his article, The role of the Chinese Communist Party in the national war (1938) where he stated, “We must affirm anew the discipline of the party, namely: the individual is subordinate to the organisation, the minority is subordinate to the majority, the lower level is subordinate to the higher level and the entire membership is subordinate to the Central Committee.” Mao himself was in a minority position on the Central Committee for more than ten years, but never violated democratic centralism.
In other political organisations, such discipline does not apply. Those with minority views can just walk away from any responsibility to implement the agreed policies. Factional activities are accepted and often formalised, even when the factions work to undermine and sabotage democratic decision-making. This petty-bourgeois attitude to party discipline stems from the substitution of liberalism and trade union politics and methods over revolutionary politics and methods.
Forces of the state
Another key feature is the attitude to the forces of the state apparatus. While making use of the limited scope of ‘legal democratic rights’ to agitate, distribute material, conduct meetings and so on, a vanguard party also takes into account the surveillance and disruption instigated by the paid agents of the state apparatus.
It should never be forgotten that many millions of dollars are pumped into spreading rumours, intercepting mail, telephone and email communications, tracking comrades, friends and acquaintances, to say nothing of outright spying, infiltrating agents and poisoning relationships, as well as blatant bribery and intimidation.
There may now be greater recognition of this with the WikiLeaks and Snowden disclosures, but that just means the revolutionary movements must exercise greater responsibility and greater care.
A revolutionary vanguard party guards its members, supporters and mass connections as much as possible. It does not conduct all its business in public scrutiny. It does not proceed as though the ruling class in ‘its’ country is so ‘civilized’, so ‘nice’ as to never resort to vicious, fascist repression in defence of its wealth and power and domination of society.