Means to Social Change: Vanguard Parties

Posted: October 22, 2013 in Politics
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Anarchist Cookbook front cover

(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

Vanguard parties (i.e., any of the 57 varieties of leninist parties–marxist-leninist, maoist, stalinist, trotskyist, etc., etc.) have a long and sordid history. Their goal is always the same: seizure of the state apparatus in the name of the people. The leninist term for this is the oxymoronic “dictatorship of the proletariat”–as if an entire class of people could somehow be a dictator. But no, the dictator is, of course, the ultra-hierarchical vanguard party itself, as the expression, somehow, of the “will of the people.” (Transubstantiation perhaps?)

The Bolsheviks provide the most prominent early example of a vanguard party. The results of their power seizure are well known: over a hundred thousand prisoners murdered by the Cheka (secret police) under Lenin, over ten million more murdered or starved to death under Stalin, a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, elimination of independent unions, dictatorial control of workplaces by the party/state apparatus, tens of millions in gulags, purges, show trials, secret police, personality cults, and the rise of a new party/government elite–a “new class” that took the place and the privileges of the old elite.lenin-small

Where vanguard parties have taken power since the Bolsheviks, the results invariably have been bleak, from the surveillance state of Honecker’s DDR (East Germany), to the mass murder in Mao’s China (among other things, the murder of three million landlords–although, sad to say, that does have a certain appeal) and the subsequent transformation of the leninist state there into a fascist state, to the nightmare of North Korea, where millions starve while the state lavishes the proceeds of their labor on a bloated military, nuclear weapons, and grotesque spectacles–all in the context of a “people’s state” that is in effect a hereditary monarchy.

In fact, the record of vanguard parties that have seized power is so uniformly awful that there’s little point in examining them at length. They’re simply failures–all of them. Examining their ideologies, structures, and theories is of interest only as an exercise in forensic pathology.

At this point, some readers will say, “What about Cuba?” Well, what about it? Even after over half a century of dictatorship, many American leftists still have a soft spot for the Cuban Communists. They’ve bought into a false dichotomy: that the only choice is between U.S. imperialism and the “Communist” dictatorship. Their attitude seems to be, “Well, we wouldn’t want that here, but it’s for the best there, so, we support Fidel (now his brother Raul).” To put it mildly, this is paternalistic and smacks disturbingly of what one might charitably call hero worship.

Decades ago, a maoist friend told me about his experiences in Cuba as part of a Venceremos Brigade in the 1970s. (Venceremos Brigades were bands of American leftists who traveled to Cuba to work in the cane fields in support of “the revolution.”) At one point, Fidel himself showed up where they were working in the fields. My friend told me that he found the reaction of his fellow brigadistas sickening, that their reaction was like that of 14-year-olds at a Beatles concert. And this at a time when the Castro regime was still executing political prisoners in droves. (That regime is, of course, secretive about this; as a result, estimates of the number of those executed vary widely, from a low of a few hundred to a high of over 30,000.)

If you think a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, government control of the media, suppression of independent unions, replacement of capitalist bosses by “Communist” bosses, secret police, prisons, executions, a network of neighborhood informers, militarism, and a personality cult are a good tradeoff for the Cuban people in exchange for good health care, free higher education, and a guaranteed low-paying job, by all means support the Cuban dictatorship–and support a vanguard party here.

But if you want individual freedom, democratic control of communities and workplaces, voluntary cooperation instead of coercion, and equality in place of domination and submission, vanguard parties are an absolutely terrible idea. On a personal level, they’re a bottomless pit of self-sacrifice, and on a societal level their results are invariably catastrophic.
* * *
Over the coming weeks we’ll look at other possible means of social change, from the worse than useless to those that show real promise. They’ll include personal lifestyle/consumption changes, urban guerrillaism, traditional street demonstrations, educational work, utopian communities, union organizing, public space occupations, housing occupations, and workplace occupations.

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