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The Party as Process

When it comes to the proposition of the revolutionary vanguard party, the anti-capitalist left falls into two general camps: those who reject the entire notion, and those who believe it is still a worthwhile concept.  Within these two camps there are significant variations, but it important to note that the concept itself is divisive.

The first camp is further divided between those who think that the entire notion of a party vanguard was worthless to begin with, and those who possess a slightly more nuanced view and who might argue, to a greater or lesser degree, for the historically embedded worth of the concept.  So we have a group that might be broadly defined as anarchist who, in my opinion, promote an improper definition of "vanguard": rather than trying to wrap their minds around the idea of an "advanced guard", they simply and inaccurately define it as "authoritarianism" (once I made a bad joke about this) and sometimes, due to this conflation of vanguardism with authoritarianism, are unable to accept that their own practice may often demonstrate those attributes they assign to vanguardism.  Then there is the group that could possibly be called autonomist marxist that argues for a more historically nuanced understanding of the theory of party vanguard––it was an attempt to operationalize marxism that failed, and this operationalization might have even been the reason it failed––without necessarily dismissing the gains made by actually existing and failed socialisms.  And finally there is a broad movementist group of leftists who, without necessarily dismissing these past and vanguardist attempts at socialism, are broadly defined by the search for some new theory of the vanguard that is not, for whatever reason, the same as a revolutionary party.

The second camp, despite its willingness to accept the notion, is also divided according to various fault-lines.  First, there is the most obvious controversy over ideology: if one of the key characteristics of a revolutionary vanguard party is a unifying revolutionary theory, then competing marxist articulations result in competing bids for the party vanguard.  Secondly, there is the problem of timing: when is a party founded, when is it right to initiate a revolutionary party, and maybe there are points in time, in given social contexts, where we should work on party-building and coalitions rather than declaring the emergence of a party.  Thirdly, there is the problem of function and constitution: just what does a party mean, in a given historical point and time, and how does it function––what goals does it pursue, how does it develop, how can it constitute itself in revolutionary manner that learns from both the successes and mistakes of the past.  Finally, there is sometimes the problem that only revisionist or extremely dogmatic party formations exist in one's social context––but this is circumstantial, and a problem that precedes the other problems, so I'm less concerned with it here.

In this post I'm also generally unconcerned with the first camp because, at various points in the history of this blog, I have argued for the importance of a revolutionary party (either to uphold the successes of the revolutionary seizure of power or to argue for my support of involving oneself in a revolutionary party process), just as I have discussed my anarchist past.  Suffice to say, I find casual dismissals of the revolutionary party vanguard rather annoying––especially when these dismissals are premised on inaccurately defining "vanguard" as "authoritarian" rather than trying to work one's way through the theoretical and historical importance of the concept, originally found in Marx and Engels, of the "advanced guard" [or "avante garde"].  This infantile and knee-jerk reaction brings nothing to the debate, demonstrates a refusal to recognize history, and is just downright offensive.  And it is extremely offensive to observe such dismissals, as I recently did in reddit, prefaced by claims about how Lenin "obviously misread Marx" followed by a winky-face, period, end of argument.  Please: do yourself a favour and educate yourself on what Marx, Engels, and Lenin actually wrote about the concept before lapsing into your most-probably petty bourgeois understanding of world history and theory.

Here's a supposedly "witty" cartoon by someone who hasn't read Marx or Lenin

Here, I'm concerned with the second camp––the communists who already consider the concept of the vanguard as something worth pursuing––and the fault-lines that keep this camp fragmented.  And because I consider the people in this camp to be, in some ways, people with an advanced revolutionary consciousness, I'm interested in thinking through the problems that keep them from moving towards a broader revolutionary unity.  Ideology, timing, function and constitution: these are fissures that prevent unity, some of them fundamentally important and some of them little more than excuses.

The problem of ideology is a problem that, I'm sure most readers will agree, is both fundamental and important.  If a revolutionary party is defined first and foremost by a unity of theory and ideology, then disparate ideologies are a point of unifying debate.  I have already argued for what ideological foundation is necessary in this context, so I won't do so further here.  But I have also argued that potential parties can and should line struggle amongst the masses and that if a party's membership is composed of people who care more for revolution than dogma, then its membership will be willing to shift its communist ideology towards whatever "competing" communist group is bringing us closer to revolution (but not, to qualify, closer to capitalist reform).  Later in this post, I hope to explain how a proper understanding of a revolutionary party will operationalize this potential problem of ideology, but for the moment I will move away from this fault-line that could fill (and has already filled) innumerable posts.

But I want to argue here that the fault-lines of time, function and constitution, though important, are often secondary fractures that sometimes exist because we want to make excuses for our unwillingness to practice what we accept in theory.  And I am arguing this because of my own personal experience, because I've made similar arguments, so I know how this gap between theory and practice is fostered and justified.

At various points throughout this blog I've argued against the wrong-headed belief that it is "not the proper time" to involve oneself with a revolutionary party, let alone attempt to build a party in the first place.  And those who argue that the time for a vanguard isn't now, and who will argue instead for the primacy of reform or movementist based struggles (for political projects, Draperite "socialism from below", trade-unionism, lowest-common-denominator economism), will never be able to explain precisely when it is correct to involve oneself in a revolutionary party.  At most they will argue that the "objective circumstances" aren't right (which is dubious), but to this claim we must ask: if the subjective circumstances (i.e. the existence of a revolutionary party embedded in the masses) don't exist by the time the objective circumstances are right, how the hell are we going to organize a revolution?  Whatever the case, as I've argued at numerous points, pushing the necessity and existence of a party into a distant and unknown horizon is an excuse for those who claim to believe in the concept of the vanguard to avoid revolutionary politics.  For once imagines that the time isn't right, it will never be right.

By now I have become extremely exhausted by people I know and count as comrades, who are very good organizers, who will tell me that, on the one hand, they believe in the existence and need for a revolutionary party, but on the other hand demonstrate that they do not think it is time to involve themselves in such a party.  Their energy is being sucked up in other activist pursuits, in reformist coalitions and trade unions, and they feel that their time can only be spent on these immediate and economists projects––not that there isn't a need for a revolutionary party to intervene in these spaces (there is), but those who believe in the primacy of a revolutionary party should be getting out of these spaces so that they can intervene from a revolutionary position.

Then there is the fact that some people who believe in the theoretical importance of a party will never agree that it is time to join one because they find the practice embarrassing.  At the centres of capitalism, after all, the whole party vanguard thing is treated as antiquated by a left that is primarily defined by members of the petty-bourgeoisie.  The moment you start talking about involving yourself in a party, whatever this party might be, you're suddenly part of that group of people––and no one wants to be like a member of the Spartacist League (except the small group of religious-minded people who are Sparts) who shows up at demonstrations (that s/he didn't help organize because s/he thinks everyone else in the left is a fool) to sell papers, yell at other people and call it an argument, and generally be a giant asshole.  And though it is rather embarrassing to be like one of these people, why does a party have to look like that type of party?  And why, if we do believe that the theory of the party vanguard is correct and the only way to make revolution, should fear of embarrassment keep us from pursuing revolution?

As for the problem of function and constitution: this produces important questions about a party's existence and development, but these are questions that can only be fully answered within a party's process––in the process of its construction, in the process of its development––and when they are used as an excuse for disavowing party participation, they will remain in order to produce an eternal excuse. A revolutionary party, after all, is not a completed institution but something that is always in movement, always changing: it will be determined by concrete circumstances and its engagement with the masses, by the groups of people it draws in and their contributions, just as it will be politically determined by the dynamic of internal line struggles.  To imagine that a perfect and complete theory of a party can be drafted after a long process of discussion and study is a myth: the holy grail of the perfect party does not exist because completed perfection does not exist––there is no party composed and run by Hegelian pure souls.

Indeed, as the comrade I accompanied to Chicago for the Platypus conference the other weekend pointed out, a revolutionary party is always a process and to imagine it any other way is theoretically unsound.  And when we start to think of the party as a dynamic process that is always open to the future, the aforementioned fault-lines are necessarily taken into account.  A party process is one that accounts for time because the party develops over time.  It should account for function and constitution because, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, a healthy party will have a process that is attempting to learn and grow through continuous self-criticism and constitution.  Finally, and most importantly, when we think of the party as a process we should be able to deal with ideological division.

During the early period of a party's existence, a party that understands itself as a process is also one that conceives of itself as a potential vanguard.  That is, it is a party pursuing a politics of the advanced guard but will only become an actual vanguard when it proves itself at the revolutionary moment of strategic defensive––when it emerges as the prime force challenging the bourgeois state and other forces are demonstrably lagging behind.  Even at this stage it might fail to complete its aims, its moment of being the vanguard might disintegrate.

So maybe it is better to have multiple potential vanguards, as long as they are willing to engage in principled line struggle and agree to liquidate themselves within the ranks of those parties moving closer to revolution––especially into the ranks of those parties that have become actual vanguards.  In this process of multiple line struggle, ideological differences that only exist because different groups feel that their ideology will produce revolution might be solved.  True, there will be those dogmatic sects whose members will never admit that they are wrong even if the world is being shaken around them–-but these sects were never even potential vanguards in the first place, no matter how hard they want to believe they are leading the revolution.  But only the party that initiates the revolution and carries it through to the seizure of power will be justified as the vanguard in the crucible of class struggle… and those parties that, even at this point, would claim otherwise––they are lagging behind, are already proven to be dogmatic and sectarian, and are even perhaps moving towards what will become the camp of counter-revolution.