Towards a Theory of Organic Vanguardism

The idea of the Vanguard Party is one of great controversy within the broad Socialist movement, with Anarchists like Iain McKay critiquing it1, and council communists like Otto Rühle going as far as to compare the entire Bolshevik mode of organisation to fascism.2 Most associated with Orthodox Leninism and heavily critiqued by Anarchists, it is interesting to note that even Leninists such as C.L.R James would abandon the idea of a Vanguard Party in favour of something more spontaneous3. The influence of Anarchism and so-called Libertarian Marxism as well as the notable failure of Leninist Vanguardism shows good reason to drop it as a conception of Socialist struggle4.

And indeed, I would not disagree with this. Although Lenin is still a figure worth reading his idea of the Vanguard was fatally flawed and was at least in part reason for the failure of of the Russian Revolution. However, the concept of the Vanguard is in my view worth keeping and can be rehabilitated. The Leninist idea of the Vanguard’s failure hinged on several factors, I’ll concentrate on the bourgeoisie intelligentsia leading it rather than the proletariat.5 This is a way in which Leninism deviates from Marxism, which until Lenin was defined by proletariat self-organisation, with Marx himself specifically writing “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves6, but the Marxist idea of the proletariat emancipating itself does not necessarily have to be contradictory with Vanguard theory. For this I will now bring up the concept of Organic Vanguardism, which I have not created- by which I mean I’ve seen other use it as a phrase before, presumably meaning something similar to myself- but on which nothing comprehensive seems to have been written.

The most important thing to note is, like it or not, some members of the proletariat will be more class conscious than others. This is where the Organic Vanguard has its genesis as it is this section of the proletariat which will comprise of the Organic Vanguard. This is where it becomes useful to note the main distinctions from Leninist Vanguardism. The Organic Vanguard is as previously noted comprised of the proletariat, rather than the bourgeoisie intelligentsia. Other key ways in which it differs is that the Organic Vanguard does not take over the state, indeed it leads the abolition of the state through communisation7. No, what the Organic Vanguard does is lead the proletariat, more by example than an iron dictatorship, though I’m sure that the Organic Vanguard can be conceived in informal and formal roles, with an informal one not being particularly different from an Anarchist Organisation and a formal one taking more influence from traditional conceptions of the Party in which there will be rules and some level of hierarchy. At any rate there can be multiple Organic Vanguards conforming to different models. The informal Organic Vanguard will most be likely decentralised, while the formal one will probably take a more Organic Centralised8 form, and indeed the idea of Organic Centralism is the key influence on my own conception of Organic Vanguardism.

The most important thing is that rather than getting cut off from the proletariat like the Leninist Vanguard did, it is part of them, and they are part of it. In this way the emancipation of the working classes will be done by the working classes and the Organic Vanguardist party can take reference to what the material conditions of the revolution demand, rather than becoming cut off and isolated.

Obviously other conceptions of the Organic Vanguard may differ but mine takes influence from the Italian Left Communist Amadeo Bordiga and in that regard it will have some level of invariance9. The most important one is the abolition of exchange value- as this is what can be argued to comprise of communism- and where previous revolutions- Marxist and Anarchist- have failed. The party should strive more for political unity than theoretical unity10, and there may be multiple factions with different disagreements, as long as those disagreements do not go against the Invariant Program, they will be tolerated and indeed should be encouraged, as debate will keep the party alive.

Of course, ultimately I posit this as just one idea and obviously any potential forthcoming revolution will ultimately reveal the form of emancipation taken, and in light of both ultra-left and post-left critiques it is possible that the revolution will not be organised at all in this fashion, though of course obviously it remains important to not thrust any idealistic conception of revolution and take it as its own course. The revolution, to alter E.P Thompson’s view of the working class, will make itself as much as it is made.

3CLR James rejection of the vanguard is addressed here

4Critique of the Leninist Vanguard mainly centres on how it got cut off from the proletariat mass, as Anarchist Wayne Price says: “the party’s central committee was unable to control the many regional and local organisations, and usually did not try to”

5. See Rosa Luxemburg’s inaccurately titled Leninism or Marxism

7Communistation is a theory from the French Ultra-Left where rather than having a transitory phase communism is done as process. Important communisation theorists are Gilles Dauvé and the journals Theorie Communiste and Endnotes.

8Amadeo Bordiga defines Organic Centralism as having maximum consultation with the base, but ensures a spontaneous elimination of any grouping which defines itself against the invariant program (see footnote 9) through correct politics, rather than repression.

9Invariance is a theory from Bordiga in which the Communist Party has some strict rules which cannot be broken. One example would be the 10 planks from The Communist Manifesto. Ideally the Invariant program should not become stifling, but stop the party from becoming reformist and opportunistic.

10The weakness of theoretical unity is shown well by The Communist League of Tampa in their essay Towards a Communist Left.


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