MLM vs. Anarchism: Why Do We Need A Vanguard Party

Revolutionary Worker #921, Aug. 31, 1997

One of the main points raised by anarchism is that there is no need for, no positive role for, a vanguard party--that such vanguard parties constitute elite and unnecessary hierarchical structures which stand in the way of liberation, and where they come to power such vanguards inevitably become new oppressive and tyrannical ruling cliques. It is the same refrain as the song by "The Who" back in the days of the '60s and early '70s: "meet the new boss--same as the old boss...hope we don't get fooled again." This is a very common refrain among petit bourgeois forces--it is an outlook that "strikes a chord" with the spontaneous outlook of even many of the radical petit bourgeois forces.

This question is addressed very directly in the article "Why You Really Need This Kind of Party If You Are Serious About Making Revolution" (sometimes referred to as the "Little Steven article," because it takes off around the line in a song by "Little Steven" Van Zandt about not needing or wanting a party to tell you what to do). As pointed out in that article, the vanguard party exists and needs to exist not because communists want to find a way that they can hitch-hike on the revolution--or ride the backs of a mass revolutionary uprising--and then get themselves into power and become a new group of exploiters. Rather, the vanguard party needs to exist because, given the contradictions in class-divided society, the exploiting system and the class forces that represent and rule in that system cannot be overthrown and finally abolished without such a vanguard party.

Now (as I spoke to in the first part of this series), it is a very real phenomenon that forces do emerge from within the communist party who take this position of seeking to become a new ruling and exploiting clique and who attempt to put this into practice. More specifically, within socialist society itself, there is the continual emergence of people within the communist vanguard who take the capitalist road and seek to restore the system of capitalist exploitation and bourgeois dictatorship over the masses.

Leading the masses to recognize the essential nature of programs and forces which promote such capitalist restoration--and leading them to wage revolutionary struggle against this--is a decisive question in socialist society. And, further, it is crucial to lead the masses to continually revolutionize the party as a crucial aspect of revolutionizing society overall and carrying forward the advance toward communism as part of the world proletarian revolution. But, fundamentally, the need for the vanguard party arises not because of the subjective desires or intentions of the communists themselves. It arises from the underlying contradictions of class-divided society (including the mental/manual contradiction as well as other major social contradictions). And the continuing need for the vanguard, even after the overthrow of the old system and the establishment of the new, socialist society, is owing to the continuation of these underlying contradictions, although the situation in socialist society is qualitatively different than in capitalist society.

Under socialism, you can and must restrict these contradictions (these differences and inequalities between different groups in society) to the maximum degree possible at every stage; but you can't overcome them right away, or in a short period. And, if you try to immediately leap beyond them or sidestep around them, you will sabotage socialism and make it easier for the bourgeoisie to regain power, in one form or another. Here, again, is a point I have emphasized in a number of writings: with socialism the masses become the masters of the economy and the rulers of society as a whole, but this is relative and not absolute. It is something in motion, propelled by contradiction; and, as was pointed out in the polemic against K. Venu*, this role of the masses as masters of socialist society is "both expressed directly through their own involvement in all spheres of society and is mediated through a number of instrumentalities, above all the state and the vanguard party." ("Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," A World to Win 1992/17. p.39.)

In other words, even after the overthrow of the old system, so long as society is marked by class division rooted in the underlying contradictions left over from capitalism, there is no way for the masses to exercise their overall role as masters of society and to increasingly take up and exercise that role without the state and the vanguard role of the party, with all the contradictions that this involves. And as that polemic vs. K. Venu goes on to say: "Given the contradictions that characterize the transition from capitalism to communism, worldwide, if the party did not play the leading role that it has within the proletarian state, that role would be played by other, organized groups--bourgeois cliques--and soon enough the state would no longer be proletarian, but bourgeois." (A World to Win 1992/17, p. 42)

Leading the Masses to Run All of Society

Let's look at this in terms of one important aspect, the mental/manual contradiction (the contradiction between manual labor and mental, or intellectual, labor). The fact is that the tasks of leadership and administration, and more generally the various spheres of intellectual labor, have to be carried out in order for socialist society to function and go forward. And this requires people with the necessary training and skills to be able to carry out this work. While in socialist society we will be able to increasingly bring forward the masses to do this intellectual labor, we won't be able to overcome this mental/manual contradiction all at once, or in a very short period of time. And, along with that, we won't be able to get rid of the leadership/led contradiction--of the need for a vanguard leadership in order for the masses to increasingly play their role as masters of society. We won't be able to advance beyond the need for that except through a whole historical process of uprooting and transforming the underlying material conditions (or contradictions) which make this kind of division of labor necessary--and also carrying out the transformations in the superstructure (the political structures and institutions and the ideological sphere, including culture) that must accompany these material changes.

If we simply say, "let's not have a party play this leading role, let's not have a state," then all that will happen is that bourgeois forces will play a leading and dominating role. They will take advantage of this mental/manual contradiction (and other major social contradictions "left over" from the old society), they will seize on these contradictions and how they find expression politically and ideologically, and (if you'll pardon the theological terminology) they will resurrect the bourgeois state and the bourgeois mode of production.

The masses will often speak to this in discussing the possibility of revolution--they will say, "We don't know how to do all this shit"--all these scientific, medical, administrative, managerial, and similar spheres of work. Sometimes, because of the incessant bourgeois propaganda and the constant promoting of its worldview and methodology, masses even doubt that they could learn how to do these things. But while, in fact, they can and will learn to master these spheres and all domains of society, they will just as certainly need leadership to enable them to progressively master all this.

If the bourgeoisie and all its hirelings somehow disappeared overnight from the face of the earth, would the masses instantly know how to do all this, or could they learn all this in a very short period of time, and without leadership? Anyone who examines this problem honestly and with any kind of scientific approach will have to answer simply--No. And besides the important aspect of the masses needing to acquire the necessary experience, knowledge and skills in these spheres, there is another important dimension to this which is brought out in a statement by Lenin, where he says that the masses have to learn that society is possible without the capitalist organization of the economy, and without the police and the army of the bourgeois state to maintain order and keep society functioning. The masses need to learn that society can be run--and run in a qualitatively better way, in accordance with the interests of the proletariat and on the basis of the masses increasingly becoming masters of society--without the rule of capital and the "work to enrich capital, or go without work and without livelihood" compulsion of the capitalist accumulation process.

If the masses don't have a communist vanguard to lead them in this process--both in overthrowing the old order and in continuing the revolution to take hold of and transform every sphere of society, and to do all this as part of the world proletarian revolution--then they will have no choice but to fall back on, to accept subordination to, the only alternative way to make society and the economy function, namely, capitalist accumulation and the rule of the bourgeoisie, with all the torture and torment this involves. The masses have some insight into this--when we talk about revolution and remaking society, they often say: "We don't know how to do all this--let's be realistic--how can you expect us to do all this? We don't have this kind of training, how can we deal with all of these realms of science and medicine and administration all of a sudden?"

The point is definitely not that the masses are incapable of learning all this and of becoming masters of all these spheres, although they have been continually bombarded with bourgeois propaganda to the effect that they are incapable of this. But the truth is--and the masses are correct in insisting on this, which they often do as they grapple with the question of making revolution and remaking society--that they are not going to be capable of doing all of these things all at once. It is going to require sustained, arduous and complex struggle in order for the masses--not just a few people from among the masses, but broader and broader layers of the masses--to actually master these various spheres of society. To carry forward this struggle all the way to the final objective will require that increasing numbers of the masses take up Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, both in its basic principles and in their application to different spheres of knowledge and activity, to many different particular contradictions. And, at every point until the final objective of a communist world is reached, this will require the leading role of a vanguard that is based on and applies the principles and methods of MLM.

Despite being continually bombarded by bourgeois propaganda, and despite the real effects of this, the basic masses have much more of an understanding of this than the petit bourgeois strata who are more inclined to believe either that you cannot--and/or that you should not--overcome these major differences (such as the mental/ manual contradiction) or that somehow you ought to be able to vault over these contradictions in a single bound.

The Need for Leadership

Now, as has been pointed out, this is an acute contradiction--the need for leadership and the underlying contradictions that give rise to this need. This is a very acute contradiction which our Party and the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) have been grappling with in the realm of theory (including the summation of historical experience, positive and negative) as well as in practice.

This contradiction finds concentrated expression in the relation between the leading levels of the party and masses inside and outside the party who follow the leadership of the party. In socialist society in particular, this is in fact a concentrated expression of the contradictions that mark socialism as a period of transition from capitalism to communism, worldwide. But, again, ignoring or underestimating these contradictions--pretending they don't exist or that they can be wiped away with the wave of a hand or vaulted over with a single bound like superman--will do nothing to resolve these contradictions, in the interests of the masses, that is, in the direction of the advance to communism and the overcoming of these contradictions in the real world, through the actual class struggle.

This does not mean that the Party should--or that it is inevitable that the party will entrench itself as a leading group in a way that makes it essentially no different from a bourgeois leading clique. There is profound importance to the principle, first set forth by Marx (and Engels) and repeated by Lenin (for example, in "The State and Revolution") that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be a new kind of state, qualitatively different than all previous states. And, through the whole process that is required to resolve all the contradictions that mark socialist society as a transition, this principle--that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be a new and qualitatively different kind of state--must be grasped and applied.

The task of drawing the masses into the administration of the state and the all-around ruling and running of society--of increasing their mastery of every sphere of the superstructure as well as of the economic base--this must be consciously and conscientiously struggled for and realized, through an intense process of class struggle, marked by spirals and repeatedly reaching decisive points of all-out confrontation between the masses and their real vanguard leadership on the one hand, and those in authority taking the capitalist road on the other hand.

But the role of the Party should not, by any means, be presented in mainly negative terms! Let us keep in mind the decisive point stressed in For A Harvest of Dragons (and re-emphasized in the polemic vs. K. Venu) that, as Lenin pointed out in What Is To Be Done?, the more highly organized and centralized the party is, the more it is a real vanguard organization of revolutionaries, the greater will be the role and initiative of the masses in revolutionary struggle--not the lesser, but the greater this role will be. This is something that has been clearly and powerfully demonstrated in the actual history of the proletarian revolution and socialist states, in both the Soviet Union and China.

And, as further emphasized in For A Harvest Of Dragons and in the polemic against K. Venu: "Nowhere has such a [proletarian] revolution been made without such a party, and nowhere has the lack of such a party contributed to unleashing the initiative of the masses of the oppressed in conscious revolutionary struggle." The last part in particular is a very important point. Not only is it true that this most radical and emancipating of all revolutions (or the first great leap in this revolution, that is, overthrowing the capitalist system) has never been made without such a party; but it is also true that nowhere has the lack of such a party contributed to unleashing the initiative of the masses of the oppressed in conscious revolutionary struggle. Just the opposite is true.

The more the Party plays a vanguard role, the more the masses are unleashed and their initiative is given expression in conscious revolutionary struggle. And, as Harvest of Dragons concludes, to argue that the vanguard party "may degenerate, may turn into an oppressive apparatus over the masses, and therefore it is better not to have such a party, only amounts to arguing that there should be no revolution in the first place; this obviously will not eliminate the contradictions that make such a party necessary, the material and ideological conditions that must be transformed, with the leadership of such a party, in order to abolish class distinctions and therewith, finally, the need for a vanguard party."


*K. Venu is a former Maoist leader in India who turned against Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and developed a line fundamentally opposed to MLM, including on the decisive question of the need for the proletarian vanguard throughout the socialist transition to communism. In "Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That," A World To Win magazine 1992/17, RCP Chairman Bob Avakian refutes the line of K. Venu.

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