The Vanguard

by Ryne Tipton on November 16, 2014

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Central to the modern socialist movement is its structure. There are plenty of existing models, past and present, for socialists to learn from- ranging from Soviet vanguardism (marked by democratic centralism, a policy which was arguably not as undemocratic as some of its opponents make it out to be) to a bourgeois social-democratic party model like that of the British Labour Party or the Parti Socialiste in France. Even though both of these parties have predominantly working-class membership, their leadership and propaganda structures are highly centralized among affluent intellectuals and political-power seekers. Notable in the case of the Labour Party is the use of trade union block votes in order to suppress popular democracy (this was especially seen in the 1980s in which socialist politician Tony Benn’s run for the deputy leadership of the party received strong support from the party’s working class constituents, while Denis Healey, an opportunist social-democrat, received strongest support from the trade unions).

What has been noticeably lacking in left political parties is an emphasis on prefigurative politics- the establishment of a socialist democratic structure to represent the working class, revealing what future possibilities of socialist governance may look like. The establishment of a democratic, proletarian political party is the best and only guaranteed structural reform that can occur within the capitalist system without severely militant backlash from the capitalist class. It has three primary purposes: 1) To give structure and cohesion to working-class movements, 2) To act as an institution of ideological development and social support, 3) To act as a liaison between the interests of the proletariat and parliamentary action, and finally, 4) To provide a blueprint (or even an actual state structure) for a future socialist society.

Even though the term vanguard has been eschewed by most democratic socialists for its negative connotations- images of the “one-party state,” bureaucratic intelligentsia, the lack of personal freedom which past communist states perpetuated, etc, the concept of a vanguard- a party of the class-conscious and active proletariat- is not inherently undemocratic. If we are to define democracy as simply raw, popular power- unbridled by ideology or commitment to activism, then it is certain that democracy (by this definition) is a self-destructive exercise in political organization. Even though a rough-hewn democratic party would certainly have the possibility to remain socialist and revolutionary in its outlook, it could instead become social-democratic under the pressure of an elite minority or even authoritarian under the pressure of strong-willed, power-hungry leaders. Democratic organization functions best when it’s tempered by a cohesive structure of delegated levels of authority answerable to party constituents and when this organization is underpinned by a constitution. Instead of the unity in public, dissent in private approach which traditional defenders of the vanguard advocate (democratic centralism), a constitutional approach which outlines fundamental, untouchable changes to basic party ideology and practice would allow for stable structure, while permitting a high level of internal democracy and struggle.

Enshrined in a party constitution would be the principles of debate and deliberation over policy, aside from fundamentals (such as an explicit commitment to socialism itself). Collective self-governance (democracy) depends upon the existence of individual self-governance in order to flourish; and, it is the protection of negative liberty (commonly dismissed as “bourgeois” and “liberal” in a number of socialist circles) which the modern vanguard must uphold and adhere to. The only real way in which the needs of the working class can be met is by allowing the individual voices of the working class to reveal their discontent, to form their own opinions, and to take action after exposure to authentic deliberation; this is the only real way in which a comprehensive ideological approach which speaks to the needs of constituents can be developed.

Besides serving as an ideological laboratory, the vanguard also would serve as a source of social support to working people. Following in the spirit of two movements in particular (specifically the Italian Communist Party and Philly Socialists), the vanguard should not only try to organize a platform for the working class but develop a system of public services and mutual aid when they are lacking within greater society. By providing support to fledgling cooperatives, employing unemployed party members, and reaching out to non-party members with community based initiatives, the modern vanguard could find itself forming the basis of new egalitarian social relations- paving the road out of traditional welfarism and towards a new form of aid which is inherently radical in its approach, a transition from traditional social dependence to progressive social empowerment.

Even though platforms for proletarian voice and social solidarity are necessary aims of the vanguard, they are not enough. Any socialist party which seeks revolutionary transformation of society must battle the capitalist class within liberal-democratic institutions. Using the aforementioned understanding of structural vs. minor reforms, it is the duty of the vanguard to straddle the revolutionary center- advocating the proper mixture of structural and minor reforms which suit the current context, while integrating these struggles into a comprehensive plan for revolutionary consummation. Party representatives in a congressional or parliamentary setting act as liaisons, couriers between the interests of the party members and the frontline battle against capital within representative institutions. Though they serve similar roles as all other representatives do- acting simultaneously as delegates and trustees- socialist representatives serve primarily as the delegates and trustees of their inner party constituency and affiliated working class voters- not that of the broader public which include the interests of capital. They are the seeds of authentic representative governance within the shell of the capitalist state, precursors to the socialist representatives of a future society.

In setting forth a set of constitutional principles, providing platforms for expression and new forms of social solidarity, and putting forth representative liaisons, the “new” vanguard has all of the components necessary for the transformation of a capitalist state into a socialist one. It provides a rough prototypical model of the future, even a model which can be integrated as a new form of government with which to replace the old.

(Ryne Tipton is a member of Young Democratic Socialists in East Tennessee.)

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryne Tipton November 17, 2014 at 3:47 am

Anyone feel free to comment or message me on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you all think- good, bad, indifferent, otherwise…


Jason Schulman November 17, 2014 at 5:08 am

Ryne — I very much liked this. I reposted it on Twitter. Have you been reading Mike Macnair, by any chance?


Ryne Tipton November 17, 2014 at 2:53 pm

No, actually I haven’t. There was a lot of Kautsky and Luxemburg and Harrington and other theorists that I’d read pretty extensively before writing this. A lot of it was mostly original reflection.


William C Crain November 17, 2014 at 7:15 am

i LIKE ~ wish we had a Democratic Socialist group in Montana. i’m not sure what it will take to end the Capitalist sys. I read here with structure it’s not a pie in the sky possibility. Keep it comi’n Ryne, thank you.


Ryne Tipton November 17, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Thanks William!


Edward Brinson November 17, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Effective rehabilitation of the vanguard concept. I especially like the idea of service to and by the working class. The Communist and Socialist Parties at their best helped sustain all sorts of popular culture in addition to their political work; art, music, literature. The Black Panther Party provided needed services to the community; education, public kitchens, cooperatives. How can the Left, such as it is, re-enchant itself? Think big and Act big.


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