Mass Struggle, Workers Councils, and “Vanguardism”

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.

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15 thoughts on “Mass Struggle, Workers Councils, and “Vanguardism””

  1. I’m one of those three people. The general idea of a vanguard party is something I have a hard time with: not that revolutionaries should not prepare for revolution and be prepared to take up leadership roles, but that, in an emergent phenomenon like a mass protest or revolution, in which steering committees and other such organs are formed in the moment, we should expect or prefer leadership of the vanguard in the belief that the working class most intimately involved in the struggle of the moment would not be able to best decide for themselves whether or not such a pre-prepared vanguard is best suited to leadership, or whether their ideas are better as advice to the councils and committees that form, or whether their priorities do NOT match those of the revolution which is underway.

    I don’t disagree that revolutionaries should do their best to *prepare* to be such a vanguard, to be as in tune, as educated in, as attentive to the working class as is possible, but to me the idea that the vanguard is necessarily the best leadership seems at odds with the idea that the working class, in struggling for its freedom, is entitled to choose its own revolutionary leadership.

    Does that make sense? Is there something major that I’m missing here?

  2. The point I disagree with there is thinking that the revolutionary party is not *of* the working class that most intimately involved in the struggle of the moment. I guess I didn’t get that across, but the point is, there is not that sort of sharp separation of the revolutionary party from the revolutionary class; they are part of one another. The revolutionary party is simply that section of the class that is the most conscious and has made the most preparation for those struggles. I should go back and make that clearer. Thanks!

  3. Hm. Maybe the clarity problem was on my end – when revolution comes, one cannot always count on members of the revolutionary party being among the individuals physically present at the formation of these councils, although of course they are statistically quite likely to be there.

    My issue is that, geographically, someone else may be on the ground at the flashpoint – the IWW, maybe, or even simply locals involved in the struggle who are not members of any previously revolutionary party, or whose class consciousness is not developed, or simply who have disagreements with members of vanguard groups. Those individuals, already being tied up in the ongoing struggle, may be better positioned as leaders, and chosen by the people in the, er, geographic vanguard of the emergent revolution, who are not in the ideological vanguard as defined by the revolutionary party.

    I understand what you say above about the ways many past revolutions have failed when this was the case. I agree that we want a leadership in revolution who is as conversant and educated in the history of class struggle & revolution as possible – informed leaders are great. But I don’t necessarily believe that – even if I am 100% in agreement with members of the vanguard party (unlikely, I’m not even in 100% agreement with myself) – those individuals are inherently more suited to leadership roles than whoever is selected by those councils and steering committees. This seems to me to be the position of those who believe in a vanguard. Is that question clearer, and if so, is that understanding a correct characterization?

    If not, I can try again. This is one of my biggest points of confusion & separation from where you’re at, & even if I wind up disagreeing, I’d like to be sure I understand.

  4. Not only could, but probably will. A revolution, or a mass struggle, throws up many of accidental leaders. That is why it is fight for the revolutionists to win the confidence of the masses, and thus the revolutionary organs. How is this done? By criticizing those who are in that position, and exposing why they are unable to meet the needs of the situation. And what convinces the masses? That the criticisms are proven correct by events, that the revolutionaries are shown to be correct over and over in anticipating what the enemy will do, what the results of a certain action will be, and so on. If they are not proven correct, they will never win the confidence of the masses. And if they are, that proves their right to that trust.

    That isn’t just an empty formula. If you study the history of the Russian Revolution in the period between February and October, that is exactly what happened–the Bolsheviks won the trust of the workers by relentlessly telling the truth, and by being right. No other tendency can say that.

  5. Wait: so the role of the vanguard party, when it sees leaders outside the party, is not to support them, but to undercut them?

    I mean, if non-vanguard leadership does not LISTEN to advice & critique, that’s one thing, but you make it sound as if the proper role of the vanguard is not to begin by helping meet the needs of the situation, but by exacerbating the inability.

  6. That, of course, like anything else depends on circumstances. If the leaders are, in fact, representing (by their decision-making) the needs of masses, then I could see that happening. If fact, something like that did happen, if memory serves (I might be wrong here) during the San Fransisco General Strike and the Flint sit-down strikes. But what matters is the policy, the correct decisions.

    The weird part of this, however, is, am I mis-remembering, or aren’t you someone who keeps wanting to get Democrats elected, and so you work to undercut the Republicans? Isn’t that because you believe the interests of the people are best served if Democrats are elected? I mean, I don’t agree with the conclusion, but I don’t object to the method. Why is this so different? If I believe that the interests of the masses are best served by this group of people holding leadership positions, why is it I should refrain from fighting for that?

  7. I absolutely agree that policy matters. I do try to get Democrats elected; because in the elections we have, I believe Democrats *better* represent the interests of the people than Republicans. I hope I have never implied they *best* represent the interests of the people, and I apologize if I’ve done so.

    I think there’s a substantial difference between campaigning in an election while the systems at work maintain the status quo, and sabotaging revolutionary efforts because the person in charge of them isn’t a member of my group. The spontaneous formation of steering councils does not sound like a regular part of partisan politics; the processes of revolution seem much more time-critical and much more prone to collapse. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking it should be different – but if it’s not any different than the partisan slog, I’m even less convinced it’s in anybody’s best interests.

    In addition, I have never undercut a Republican who was leading a project or movement I believed in (perhaps because I think that’s only happened once in the last decade, on the local level where party affiliation is often next to meaningless as a predictor of policy), and I have numerous times supported independent candidates or outsider candidates not supported by the Democratic establishment, because I thought their policy was correct.

    It sounded as though you were advocating the undercutting of successful revolutionary leaders for lack of membership in a group. If the vanguard would be critiquing unsound policy, and would accept leaders advancing sound policy who did not identify as one of them, I have much less problem with the vanguard as a concept. But that’s what it sounded as if you were saying, which fit the general misgivings I have about vanguard leadership as a self-selecting elitist force (which would, again, be no better than partisan politics as usual, although also no worse – but I don’t think ‘no better than partisan politics’ is a rallying cry ANYONE should get behind).

  8. So it’s okay to sabotage our elected officials?

    Seriously, you’re *really* reaching here. You seem so eager to make this all Evil and Nefarious that you aren’t even thinking about what you’re saying. Criticizing the decisions of leaders is only effective IF THOSE DECISIONS ARE THEN PROVEN WRONG BY EVENTS. If they are proven right, your criticism does nothing except embarrass you. And if your criticisms are proven right, over the course of months or perhaps years, to the point where you win democratic elections, how is that supposed to be some sort of conspiracy? It is always, every step of the way, rigorously honest and upfront, because otherwise the working class cannot trust you. Take a little bit and study some of this as its played out in the past, both the successes and the failures–I listed some of each in the original post.

  9. I think there’s a very big difference between saying “the role of a (politician or revolutionary) is to work for successful policy by speaking the truth and pointing out historical failures” and “the role of a (politician or revolutionary) is to expose why other leaders are unable to meet the needs of the situation.” I have absolutely no problem with the first formulation, even when it does lead to sabotaging policy by elected officials. The second formulation does sound nefarious to me, and it was the formulation you chose to represent the aims of the vanguard. Are you suggesting that unfair, misleading, or incorrect critiques have never won the trust of the working class and turned the tide of elections? People who are wrong in their critiques win all the time through political gamesmanship.

  10. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Preface):

    The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.

    Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

  11. “Are you suggesting that unfair, misleading, or incorrect critiques have never won the trust of the working class and turned the tide of elections?” Off hand, I can’t think of any cases. I can think of times when in the retreat after the surge of a mass movement, ie, during the counter-revolutionary ebb, this has happened, and times when there simply wasn’t time for the new leaders to win the trust of the working class before the crisis reached a breaking point. But, as you formulate it, no, I’ve never seen that.

    Did you read the original post? The idea that, in the fight against modern capitalism, it is possible without training, without a method that thoroughly comprehends the nature of capitalism and the history of the workers movement, that it is possible to successfully lead a mass struggle indicates a profound lack of knowledge. That is why I keep suggesting a study of some of these movements. The Eberts, the Kerenskys, the Stalinists in the trade union movement, all of whom were thrust forward by the first spontaneous movement of the masses. Look at the history of the drivers strike here in Minneapolis, not to mention the Bolshevik revolution itself. If you’ve studied history, you know what to expect from leaders who have no training, even the well-meaning ones.

    Hell, we don’t even have to go that far back: look at Syriza and its betrayal of the Greek workers just a couple of years ago. How is it the Marxists knew what he would do, while everyone else was crying, “Give him a chance!” When you are able to predict what is going to happen, and you fail to warn the working class, this is called betrayal.

    Can I imagine a circumstance in which some the leadership would, as a body, accept criticism and change their policies? I suppose anything is possible. But if so, by the very logic of revolutionary politics, that would lead them to join the revolutionary party, so we’re right back where we were only by a different route.

  12. I’m going to put a pin in this, and go do some reading!

    (That is, specifically, on revolutionary history, starting with History of the Russian Revolution)

  13. “How is this done? By criticizing those who are in that position, and exposing why they are unable to meet the needs of the situation. And what convinces the masses? That the criticisms are proven correct by events”

    To make *sure* that your criticisms come true, you need to *make* them come true.

    So for example if you say “This plan will not work because the counter-revolutionary authorities will anticipate the action and slaughter the participants”, then you can make that more likely by snitching to the counter-revolutionary authorities.

    In the extreme case, popular leaders who are not in the revolutionary clique can be killed. Preferably by the enemy, but it’s OK if nobody finds out who did it. They can be remembered as heroes once they are out of the way.

    There are various ways it can go. During the Cuban revolution, Vega had been troublesome, and perhaps by coincidence of the three prongs of the attack, it was his that was ambushed and wiped out. Various other revolutionary movements were happening at the same time as Castro’s, and they kind of cooperated for awhile. During and after the revolution Castro had each of them terminated. The leaders were killed or imprisoned for long times, and the followers were distrusted.

    This sort of thing might be kind of inevitable in various contexts. When King David of Israel was dying, various of his sons made their bid to become king. They collected symbols of his power to persuade people that they were the rightful heir. One of them had his bugle, another had his mule. One started having sex with his concubines on the palace roof. The one who won was the one who inherited the palace guard and shock troops. Solomon eventually had most of the others killed, including all of the ones that had made a claim to be king.

  14. Back to the OP, then I suppose it is the goal of the Capitalists and their servants to locate these leaders or potential leaders and get rid of them by any means necessary. I read that the Democratic Party Machine police were doing just that during the Occupy movement, likely using NSA’s cell phone data as a starting point.

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