The “Yellow Vest” protests in Commercy are calling for the building of popular committees to guide the struggle. This tells us, if we didn’t already know, that they’re serious.
In a Facebook discussion, I got into a mild disagreement with someone who opposed “vangurdism.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so I want to get my thoughts down. Between those who already know more about the subject than I do and those who don’t care, I figure maybe three people might be interested, but, since I’m one, here we go.
The issue of building a revolutionary leadership within the working class is often (including by me, I’m afraid) posed as a complete abstraction. There is this thing called “the leadership” and somehow it gains leadership of “the masses” and when considering this, people concerned with revolutionary politics argue about is this a good thing or a bad thing and what are the possible problems and so on, and none of it has anything to do with reality.
When large sections of the working class begin to move, whether in mass protests such as we’re seeing in France, or a general strike such as we saw in Minneapolis and San Francisco in the 30s, or a revolutionary struggle (often emerging from one of the others) such as in Russia, one of the first things that happens is the creation of steering committees in some form. These are democratically elected representatives of the working classes that have the job of making tactical decisions that can’t wait for mass votes, and strategic recommendations. These organs occur spontaneously. because it quickly becomes obvious to those involved in such mass actions that without them a serious struggle is impossible. We’re already seeing the seeds of this in France, as I mentioned above. The exact forms vary, but they usually feature immediate recall for any representative who fails to represent, a vital feature in a social struggle where both objective circumstances and the the consciousness of the masses change so quickly.
In the Russian Revolution of 1905, these spontaneous organizations were called “workers councils,” or “councils,” the Russian word being “soviet.” These same organs occurred in Germany in 1918, in Spain, in Italy, and even appeared in Hungary in 1956, and many other places. When an insurrection takes place (Russia 1917, Germany 1918, &c) these fighting organs quickly and naturally become organs of government.
Above, I made mention of tactical decisions and strategic recommendations (two things that aren’t as distinct as I’m making them sound). Those are the key. These leadership organs negotiate with the enemy as appropriate, consider offers, compromises, decide when a protest should and should not take place, and where, and if it should be armed, when to advance, when to retreat, how to approach winning over the army, and so on. These organs are trusted by the workers, because they were created by the workers.
A bad decision can be catastrophic to the entire struggle. And making good decisions is very difficult—it requires a solid understanding of the mood of the masses at any given moment, the ability to evaluate the strength of the enemy, a deep commitment to the cause, and a clear understanding of the goal to be achieved (even if, in the inevitable confusion of such struggles, the steps to reach that goal are unclear).
For those of us who believe such struggles are inevitable, the question is how to prepare for them. Marxism is not, the opinions of thousands of academics to the contrary, a set of precepts to be used in making passive criticisms of the status quo. Marxism is the science of revolution; that is, the science that provides the tools to evaluate the questions posed during a revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary party is the laboratory of revolution, where those who understand the inevitability of such conflicts test ideas and prepare. The revolutionary party enters working class struggles with a program and a clear idea of the goal. It is constantly fighting within the working class for its ideas, to spread its understanding, to find the most advanced, class conscious workers and work with them to prepare for what will happen.
As the mass struggle erupts, the revolutionary party then fights to win these leadership positions, having built a solid base within the working class. The October Revolution of 1917 happened when the Bolshevik Party won a majority in the Soviet. The Minneapolis General Drivers strike was successful because it was Marxists, Trotskyists, who were elected to leadership positions. The German Revolution of 1918 was defeated because the infant Communist Party was unable to win the leadership of the soviets from the rotten Social Democrats, who handed power back to the bourgeoisie.
Thus, what some call “vanguardism” is nothing more than preparing within the working class for the conflicts to come, and attempting to win broader and broader sections of workers to the party, and fighting for socialist consciousness against the coming upsurge, so it will be carried to a successful conclusion. There is nothing in the least undemocratic about it, on the contrary, it takes place in the most democratic, most truly representative political form yet devised.
The revolutionary party and the revolutionary class are not separate and distinct entities, the way some people (as I said, including me) sometimes talk about them. The revolutionary party is that section of the revolutionary class that has most consciously prepared for mass struggles. The fight for leadership of the organs of struggle of the masses to carry them to a successful conclusion is the task of the revolutionary party.