Reaching for the Heights And Flying Without a Safety Net

Part 3: The Vanguard: The Profound Necessity, and the Profound Contradiction

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1198, May 11, 2003, posted at

The next point I want to focus on is something that's also spoken to in our Party's Draft Programme , particularly in the first appendix on the party--and that is the link between the need for revolution and the need for a vanguard party. In that first appendix on the party in the Draft Programme ("The Party and the Masses"), it basically lays out why you need a vanguard party, what the contradictions are in society that make that necessary, what the conditions of the masses of people are that prevent them from just all at once spontaneously coming to the understanding and acting on the understanding of the need for revolution. And then it concentrates that by saying: What kind of organization you see as necessary depends on what you're trying to do. If all you're trying to do is make a few reforms, if you're not trying to really confront and deal with this whole system, if you're not trying to make revolution and transform society and the world, then you don't need this kind of vanguard party, and you don't need this revolutionary ideology of MLM. But, once you've confronted what the reality actually is and the necessity is, then it becomes clear that you have to have a vanguard like this--a party that, yes, is highly organized, but above all is united around this most advanced ideology of MLM, this scientific approach to reality. This ideology is a living, ongoing thing--correctly understood and applied, it is the farthest thing from dry and dead dogma--but it does most correctly and comprehensively grasp reality and its contradictoriness and the potential and the tendency for revolutionary change.

If you look at what we actually have to do--if you look at the fact that without state power all is illusion, but with state power all these things become possible, that are impossible now--then you see the need for this kind of vanguard party. And seeing that, there's absolutely no reason to be defensive about it. Why should we be defensive about things that are most essential about reality? In other words, the fact that we understand some essential things about reality is supposed to make us defensive? That doesn't make sense.

Now, I understand that, especially in these times with the ongoing bourgeois propaganda offensive about the "death of communism," and with the spontaneous tendencies of many in the middle strata, there is a widespread notion that the concept of a vanguard party has been discredited, and this can make some people defensive about putting forward the need for such a vanguard leadership. But if we are really proceeding from reality and from the fundamental needs and interests of the masses of people, of the great majority of humanity, if we continually reground ourselves in what this is all about and whom this is all for, we will grasp very clearly why there is absolutely no reason to be defensive about this and in fact we should be very bold in putting this forward.

What is involved, from our point of view, is not some kind of competition between groups or any of that kind of thing. It's about bedrock questions of what is the reality we are confronting--the larger reality, the social reality, the reality of world history, the reality of the world situation, and where is all this tending and where does it need to go, how do you get there, and what are the contrary forces and tendencies? And how do you deal with these contradictions? This is why you need a vanguard--to deal with all these things. And having grasped that this is the case, then we should be boldly putting forward not only the need for a vanguard in general but also the role of our Party as such a vanguard.

While we have to divide this into two, we need a little bit more of that spirit of the old Black Panther Party; you know, they used to go around and they would say, "relate to the vanguard." Now, there are ways in which we need not to do this--ways that would in fact be sectarian and dogmatic-- but we need more of that basic spirit of: "yeah, you need a vanguard and here we are and this is the role we're playing." As I said in the interview with Carl Dix* this is a matter of the responsibility that you're willing and able to take. This is not a matter of proclaiming yourself better than other people or insisting that everybody follow you--certainly not blindly follow you, which would be absurd as well as wrong. But it is a matter of saying: "Yes, we're willing to take that responsibility. We see the necessity, we see the historical tendencies, and we're acting upon them. We're going to learn from everybody we can learn from, we're going to be open to the idea that we may be wrong about something, at the same time as we're going to stand firmly on what we believe to be right at any given time, and we're going to carry it out--we're going to continue that process, and we're going to carry it forward as part of a larger process of unity/struggle/unity with many people and as part of the fundamental process of making revolution and transforming the world."

There's absolutely no reason for us not to be putting this forward boldly--and even, in the right sense, putting it forward offensively. When I say offensively, we have to divide that into two also. There are different meanings of offensive: one is putting it forward boldly and in a living way and really struggling with people in a good way to understand what we understand; that is very different than being offensive in the sense of actually being sectarian, having small group or narrow interests in mind and just getting into petty squabbles and all that other bullshit that's way too characteristic of too many trends out there anyway.

So we don't want to be offensive in that sense, but we do want to be bold about what we understand. Not like these zombie Christian fundamentalists--who are always on a crusade to "take the truth to people" when there's no truth in what they represent--but in a scientific way, and with the correct style of work, which isn't just a matter of diplomacy, but is actually a matter of methodology and ideology, actually taking this out to masses of people and to people from all the various strata, in order to enable the people to engage with this: first of all to spread the influence of this, to raise this question in people's minds, to get them grappling with this question, and to win over particularly the advanced revolutionary- minded people to this understanding and unleash them and bring them closer to the Party and bring them into the Party. We should be, in the very best sense, on a mission about this.


This brings me to the next point, which we could put this way--and in fact in the second appendix on the party in the Draft Programme ("The Party Under Socialism, and the Transition to Communism") it does put it more or less this way and pose the contradiction in these terms: the leadership of the party is essential as long as there are classes and class struggle, but at the same time there is also the potential for the party to turn into its opposite, to become an institution misleading and even oppressing the masses of people instead of a force leading them forward toward their liberation. Obviously, that can happen even when you don't have state power--a lot of parties have become revisionist and made their peace with the system and have gone out to work to convince the masses of people to do the same, to reinforce the system and its hold over the people. But, when the party is the vanguard of the proletariat in power, the potential for the party to turn into its opposite is magnified in those conditions, because for a certain period of time in the new socialist society, the party--and, in an even more concentrated way, the party leadership--does have its hands on the key levers of power and influence. This is a potentially very acute contradiction. There are a lot of acute contradictions we have to deal with in doing everything we're setting out to do, and this is one of the most acute. So what should we do?

As I referred to earlier, there is a whole line out there that this is a "failed project," that there is some fundamental flaw in what we're all about--and that the whole idea of a Leninist vanguard in particular is an error and has led to disaster. Well, what people who say this are doing, of course, is falling into line with and repeating a lot of bourgeois "analysis" (such as it is) and bourgeois propaganda about all this. But also there's a certain spontaneity that goes with that--it bolsters a certain spontaneity of petit bourgeois individualism, which is hardly a minor phenomenon in a society like the U.S. and which in fact exists among all strata, even the most basic proletarians. But, along with this, there's the spontaneous summation of what's happened, and the superficial appearance of what's happened, in the history of our movement, in the history of socialist countries, in the history of the exercise of proletarian rule and leadership by vanguards. There are things we do have to learn more deeply and sum up more fully about all this. Mao charted a tremendous course for us, but he only went so far with this, as he himself acknowledged--there's a lot more work to be done to dig into this more fully, in theory and in practice, and in the dialectical relation between the two, in order to correctly handle these contradictions that we can recognize are very complex and are often acutely posed. And, while the things we do now won't solve the problems we will confront later (that is, when we are actually in power), it's not as if there is no relation between what we do now and how we're going to be able to approach those contradictions when we do get to the point of having state power.

And we will get to the point, in (what is now) the U.S. as well as in other countries throughout the world--unless the world is blown up or otherwise destroyed by the imperialists, and that's something we'll struggle to prevent, too. There is the basis for us to make revolution--yes, right within the belly of the most powerful imperialist beast, as well as in the world overall. There are underlying factors and tendencies which are, through an intensely contradictory process, propelling the world in the direction of this revolution. There is a material basis for us to build on, in doing that. And we're going to maximize every effort we can to do that. And what we do now--the methods we use now, the way we work among the masses now, what our ideological understanding is, the way in which we provide leadership for others while also learning from others, the Party spirit and partisanship we build for our Party and its leadership while encouraging and developing the critical and creative spirit that is in fact such an essential part of our ideology and method--all those things have a lot to do with how we're going to handle these contradictions later, when there is the dictatorship of the proletariat and we are the vanguard of the masses in ruling and transforming society. Do we use bureaucratic methods? Do we act like the opportunists and try to be all things to all people? Our methods now have a lot to do with how we're going to be preparing ourselves and the masses, and new waves of advanced people who continually come forward, to deal with these contradictions in the future.


You know, there's a line from a Bob Dylan song: "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose." Well, what's the opposite of that? When you have something, you do have something to lose. And state power is certainly a big something to lose! Even having a party is something to lose.

I was thinking the other day about what it was like way back, several decades ago, before we had a party, and some of us were setting out to try to radically change the world. It's like Lenin said: we were like peasants going off to war, metaphorically speaking, grabbing whatever weapons were at hand, ideologically and politically. We understood some things, but on another level we didn't know what the hell we were doing. And in terms of ideology at that time, it was a real "mixed bag"--some of this, and some of that. How do you come to an understanding of which one of these ideologies really corresponds to reality and really represents the solution to the problems? And how do you even know what the fundamental problems are? There were all kinds of different trends, including many different varieties of revisionism and opportunism--we had to sort through all that stuff. But we were carefree, in a certain way--because we didn't have anything to lose. There was no party. If we messed up, it didn't mess up a whole party. Maybe we'd cause some problems and add to the confusion, but we weren't going to screw up a whole party. It wasn't going to have significant consequences, including for the international movement, if we made mistakes. Of course, you always try not to make mistakes, even though you are never going to be completely free of mistakes; but the stakes were different then.

Now we have a mature party. It's not nearly as big and influential as it needs to be--which is something that can and must be changed--but it's not insignificant. It's a very significant thing for the masses of people in this country and for the international movement, right now, as well as potentially--that there is this Party, that it does have influence, and is building organized ties, among the proletarians and basic masses, and among many other strata, in the U.S. Well, if "when you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose," the other side of that is: when you got something, you got something to lose. Mistakes now could have a big effect on the Party and its ability to meet the challenges it faces, which we all know are greatly magnified with the new situation we are confronting and the whole juggernaut of war and repression the U.S. imperialists are unleashing. Wow--that's not a minor thing! So how do you take initiative in that kind of a situation? How do you take risks in that kind of a situation? How do you give people, including those who are inexperienced, initiative and let them go out and make mistakes? This is one of the big things we need to be wrestling with.

Going back to the earlier experience I was referring to, before there was an MLM party in the U.S., one of the reasons that those of us who were involved then did learn is because we did make mistakes. Now, I don't believe in a "recipe" that you have to make mistakes in order to learn, but you do make mistakes--that's part of the deal. And if you're good at learning from your mistakes, you can grow and you can learn a lot. But the question is: how do you let that process go on, of letting people take initiative and grow and actually develop and make leaps in their ability to lead things? You can't do that unless you're willing to let people make mistakes, maybe even some serious ones. And yet, think about the context we're in. To say the least, what we represent is not exactly high on the list of things favored by the ruling class right now. And that's as it should be, but it poses real challenges--not only for us, of course, but for anybody who sees the need to stand up against this imperialist juggernaut, although the challenges for us are magnified and concentrated, given our whole revolutionary perspective and program.

So, here we are, and we're confronted with the question of both in general bringing forward new forces into our Party--and, within the Party, bringing them forward to new levels of leadership--and also particularly bringing forward younger, newer generations of people to play those roles and to continue to advance and develop in that way. And, as I have been emphasizing, this is not without risks. If we don't deal with this correctly, if we don't find the way to carve out freedom in this situation and transform the necessity, if we don't find the ways to enable people to take initiative and even to make mistakes, we will fail to meet the challenges. And for those who are coming forward and will be taking increasing initiative, there is an aspect in which, metaphorically speaking, they will be "flying without a safety net." There is an element of that in terms of enabling people who are new to various tasks, or new to the revolution, or new to the Party, to take initiative and letting them make some mistakes, while at the same time the means must be developed to help minimize those mistakes and their negative consequences and to have this contribute, in an overall sense, to advances. Once more, to repeat an obvious but important point, this is a very acute contradiction, and a lot of attention needs to be paid to this.

And this process--and these contradictions--find expression on all different levels. This isn't just a question of leadership of the Party and the relation of leadership and led within the Party. It also exists in any kind of mass initiative in which we're involved. You know, there's always a temptation to take things in our own hands and do them because "we know how to do them better"; but, in reality, it doesn't end up being better because it isn't achieving what we're trying to achieve. It's falling into the bourgeois bureaucratic mechanical approach of thinking that the key thing is just to get certain tasks done. And the truth is that we don't always know how to do things better than others, even though our world outlook and methodology does, in an overall and ultimate sense, enable us to engage, to understand and to transform reality in the most systematic and comprehensive way (this relates to the principle that "Marxism embraces, but does not replace" the different fields of human thought and endeavor-- a point Mao stressed and which I spoke to in a recent talk, "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production"**).

But then the contradiction arises--there are certain things that have to get done. If it didn't matter whether things got done or when they got done, it would be a lot easier--but then it wouldn't mean anything, it wouldn't go anywhere. Things do have to get done. Here comes October and Not In Our Name is calling for a big initiative: does it matter if there are a few people or thousands and tens of thousands of people out there? Does it matter more generally whether resistance, of many different kinds, involving many diverse forces, is built against this imperialist juggernaut? Does that make a difference? It makes a big difference. It makes a huge difference. So we're confronted with necessity. It's not like we just have complete freedom to do anything any way we want. So, how do you forge the correct synthesis out of all that? That's a big question.

And in a concentrated way, this question poses itself in terms of leading the Party, and particularly in terms of being willing to risk certain things in order to bring forward new forces and enabling them to take increasing initiative. Years ago, back in the '70s, not long after the coup in China, in Communists Are Rebels *** I emphasized this point that, if you're afraid to lose what you've got, then you're going to lose it anyway. That was the essence of the point. But that's one side of the contradiction. The other side of the contradiction is that it matters greatly whether you lose or advance--you don't say, "Oh yeah, that's right, we shouldn't be afraid to take risks, so let's just throw everything up for grabs" and risk everything in an irresponsible or foolish way. So how do we get the right synthesis there? That's a key question. It's going to be a key question for us now, even before we have state power, and it has implications, even now, for when we do have state power.

As I was speaking to a little earlier, there is a dialectical relation between what we do now and what we do when the stakes are even higher, before the seizure of state power and on an even more magnified level when we do have state power. There's a relation there in terms of what methods we learn and apply and how we lead people, in a living sense. What are we preparing ourselves and the masses for? That's another way to put it. And how are we going about that? We have to consciously take this up, because, as Mao pointed out, you are always applying a certain line, consciously or unconsciously, and if you do things unconsciously then you're going to use the wrong methods ultimately. Even if you do things consciously, it's a struggle to use the correct methods and to keep on the correct course, but if you go by spontaneity you're bound to get off course and you're bound to use the wrong methods. So we're going to have to consciously confront and grapple with this, all the way through.


  1. * "Bob Avakian Speaks Out--Interviewed by Carl Dix: On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World," RW #1155-56, 1158-64, 1166-68, 1171, 1173-74 between June 16 and November 10, 2002. Audio available on CD from Revolution Books stores and outlets or RCP Publications. Also available online at [Return to article]
  2. ** "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production" appeared in RW Nos. 1175 (Nov. 17, 2002), 1179-82 (Dec. 15, 200-Jan. 12, 2003), 1184-89 (Jan. 26-Mar. 2, 2003). "Marxism Embraces, But Does Not Replace" appeared in RW No. 1180. These are also online at [Return to article]
  3. *** Bob Avakian, Communists Are Rebels: A Letter from RCP Chairman Bob Avakian to His Parents on Philosophy, Religion, Morals, and Continuous Revolution (Revolutionary Communist Youth, April 1980.) [Return to article]

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