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Taking a broader perspective…

The cold, deathly hand of ‘vanguardism’…..

By Darrell Goodliffe.

Something has sprung into life; a movement that may just carry the seeds of some radical social change. I don’t want to jinx it and certainly don’t want to say we are knocking on the door of a revolution (because we aren’t) but a combination of factors just makes things feel, well, a little bit different and more promising this time. However, there have been promising movements before which have floundered basically as they have been led into a cul de sac. Consistently, the left insists that the crisis is a perpetual one of ‘leadership’ and that if movements are to succeed they only need to accept our leadership to be successful. So, while we have something of a natural recess in the movement due to the Christmas holidays perhaps now is the time to consider slaying some sacred cows.

Vanguardism is relevant as a concept because it’s actually not just the creed of Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist groups who charge around the place like proverbial bulls in a china shop proclaiming themselves to be the ‘vanguard’ of the working class. Implicitly, there is something of an acceptance of vanguardism in Labourism which replaces the revolution with the election of a Labour Government on the assumption it, having been duly elected, will rain manna from heaven and, in the case of the old Clause IV, deliver for the workers the fruits of their labours to them. It sees Labour, in control of the state, as the agent of progressive change and implicitly the Labour Party as the rightful vanguard of the movement. This can be just as disempowering and atomising as the harshest ‘democratic centralist’ regime.

In  my mind, ‘vanguardism’ is the notion that to succeed a movement must be led by an organisation (usually a political party) because in and of itself a movement is not able to effect sweeping social change. This is true just as the a priori vanguardist assumption that some will lead and some will follow is; however, its a one-sided truth. The two things are related because the vanguard organisation is the organisation of these ‘leading individuals’.  Its true that the vast majority of us don’t have the time, energy or wherewithal to bury ourselves in theoretical study or even to attend every protest. Not everybody can, or probably should, be a leader; even in the most brilliantly formed democracy some will shine and others will retire as their individual nature dictates. Furthermore, vanguardist political organisation also made sense in an autocratic state for precisely the reasons that render its purist application in a representative democracy a little errr disconnected from reality.

However, there the truth telling ends. Although they may not be able to reguitate at will Marx’s theory of surplus value people can generally grasp complex truths about the nature of their condition, position and society around them and are able to logically follow from that a clear articulation of their needs. Also, they can form from that a vision of how not just their life may not be better but also how the world in general can be a better place. Maybe they can’t attend every protest or meeting but that doesn’t stop them feeling a burning sense of anger at a government waging war on them and wanting to do something about it. As such they can contribute without being ‘leaders’ per se to all our struggles.  Finally, we should always remember something the left always seems to forget; context matters and the brilliance of our past heroes stemmed primarily from their grasp of the world around them which they combined with their knowledge of what had gone before to shape that world in their here and now.

Vanguardism and ‘vanguardist’ political organisation unleavened by democracy (which provides the living, dare I say it dialectical, relationship between movement and organisation), democratic understanding, struggle and demands, could become the cold deathly hand that chokes this movement at birth. I am sure nobody reading this truly wants that……


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One Response

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DarrellGoodliffe. DarrellGoodliffe said: RT @Broadleftblog: @DarrellGoodliff warns the new movements against the cold, deathly hand of 'vanguardism'…..: […]

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