Many political groups, somewhat disenchanted with orthodox reformist practice, fancy themselves as 'vanguards' of the working class. We do not.We say that workers should reject these would-be elites and organise for socialism democratically, without leaders.
By fostering wrong ideas about what socialism is and how it can be achieved the vanguard organisations are delaying the socialist revolution. It may help to clear away confusion if we list a number of doctrines held by most of these groups, and then state why we disagree with them:
- State ownership is socialism, or a step on the way to socialism.
- Russia set out on the way to socialism.
- Socialism will arrive by violent insurrection.
- Workers cannot attain socialist consciousness by their own efforts, only a trade union consciousness.
- Workers must vote for the Labour Party.
- Workers must be led by an elite - a 'vanguard'.
- Workers must be offered bait to follow this vanguard in the form of ‘transitional demands', a selective programme of reforms.
Since workers must have some incentive to follow the vanguard, 'transitional demands' in the form of reformist promises are necessary, and since these tactics were successful in carrying to power the Russian Bolsheviks, it is assumed that Russia must have set out on the road to socialism. The basic dogma on which all this is founded is that the mass of the workers cannot understand socialism.
Vanguardists may protest at this summary, they may insist that they are very much concerned with working class consciousness, and do not assert that workers cannot understand socialist politics. However, an examination of their propaganda reveals that 'consciousness' means merely following the right leaders.
When it is suggested that the majority of the working class must attain a clear desire for the abolition of the wages system, and the introduction of a world-wide moneyless community, the vanguardists reply that this is "too abstract", or (if they are students) "too academic". Indeed, they themselves do not strive for such a socialist system. None of the vanguard groups advocate the immediate establishment of a world without wages, with production democratically geared to meeting people's needs.
Some of them say, when pushed, that they look forward to such a world "ultimately", but since this "ultimate" aim has no effect on their actions it can only be interpreted as an empty platitude.Far from specifying socialism as their aim, they are reticent and muddled about even the capitalist reforms they will introduce if they get power.
Ironically, Bernstein's dictum "The movement is everything, the goal nothing" sums up the vanguard outlook very well, as a cursory glance at Militant or Socialist Worker will confirm.It seems fair to conclude, however, that the vanguardists' ideal is the brutal state capitalist regime that existed in Russia under Lenin, a fact which causes us socialists some concern, as it means we would be liquidated (a fate which would undoubtedly have befallen us under the Bolshevik tyranny).
State ownership is not, of course, socialism, but a major feature of all forms of capitalism. It means merely that the capitalist state takes over responsibility for running an industry and exploiting its workers for profit. However wage-slavery is administered it cannot be made to run in the interests of the wage-slaves.
The Labour Party, which receives the support of most of the vanguardists, is not socialist and never was meant to be. Every time it has been in power it has administered capitalism in the only way it can be, as a profit-making system organised in the interest of the profit-takers (the capitalists) and not the profit-makers (the workers). The vanguardists are fully aware of this but their proposition that workers cannot understand socialism commits them to the view that the only way workers will come to see that Labour is no good is through personally experiencing the failure of a Labour government to further working class interests.So, they tell workers to vote Labour.Some even join the Labour Party themselves.
This is an intellectually arrogant view, which sees workers as dumb creatures that only learn by immediate experience without being able to draw on the past experience transmitted to them by other workers. The thinking behind it is that when the workers see the Labour leaders fail them they will then turn to the vanguard for leadership instead.
This has never actually happened - not after 1945, nor after 1964, nor after 1974 - and, fortunately (since experience of rule by a vanguard party is one experience workers can certainly do without), probably never will. Some workers do indeed learn by such experiences, but the vanguardists never do. They go on repeating their slogan "Vote Labour" in election after election. Their mistaken view of the intellectual capabilities of workers leads them to urge workers to vote against their interests by supporting one particular party of capitalism in preference to its rivals. The Labour leaders are happy with this and so, no doubt, are other supporters of capitalism who realise that the vanguardists merely channel working class discontent away from a really revolutionary course.
It is the same with 'transitional demands', which are just promises to reform capitalism. Workers are urged to struggle for these under the leadership of the vanguard party in the expectation that when these reforms fail to materialise or fail to work (as the vanguard know will happen) the workers will turn against the present system.
There again, because of their flawed basic position that workers are incapable of understanding socialism, the vanguardists reject the direct approach of presenting workers with the mass of evidence that reforms don't solve problems and at best can only patch them up temporarily, and again seek to manipulate workers into personally going through the experience of failure.
Workers don't need to go down any more blind alleys. The vanguardists, however, don't agree. They say workers should go down every blind alley they come across until they learn in the only way they supposedly can - direct personal experience of the futility of reformism. And they appoint themselves to lead workers down these blind alleys.
The vanguardists often justify their reformist actions by saying it is a practice known as "developing consciousness through struggle". "Struggle" is apparently a sort of metaphysical driving force which is supposed to turn reforms into sparks of revolution. Such mystification is essential to the curious doctrine that the workers will establish socialism inadvertently, while they are occupied with something else. But the effect of this is to encourage reformist illusions among the workers, and in fact, since all the main capitalist political parties including Labour now recognise the limits that capitalism imposes on improving living standards, the vanguardists have ended up as the main advocates of reformism today.
Look again at the misnamed Socialist Worker or any other Leninist paper and you will see that they spend all their time proposing this measure or opposing that measure within capitalism and none educating workers in the basic principles of socialism. Since they don't believe the workers can understand these principles anyway they are at least being consistent; as from their point of view to campaign for socialism is to cast pearls before swine.But once again the effect of their mistaken 'tactic' is to keep capitalism going.
The belief that socialism or something like it used to exist in Russia is common to most vanguard groups. This is to be expected: the vanguard strategy has been put into practice many times, and should surely have succeeded once or twice. Russia, from Lenin to Gorbachev, furnished fresh proof every day of class privilege and working class poverty that was typically capitalist, but all its obviously anti-working class features were dismissed as the results of 'degeneration'. Some looked to China or Cuba as less degenerate systems. Some still do. Some even look to North Korea.
Others are not so stupid. They are the vanguardists who have come round to the view that Russia was capitalist, but even they still cling to the idea that the Bolshevik revolution was socialist - and, by implication, that a future socialist revolution will be run on similar lines. After all, an admission that the Russian working class never held political power, and that Bolshevism was always a movement for capitalism, would call into question the entire mythology of the left.A topic of serious concern for vanguardists, if no-one else. is the question: when did 'degeneration' start? In truth, more clues to the answer with be found with Robespierre, Tkachev and Lenin than with Stalin.
The belief that Russia was socialist or a "workers' state" has been a source of confusion for many decades now.Happily, it is ebbing away - illusions are usually corrected by material reality sooner or later. But the fact that such a doctrine could catch on so readily shows the hazy conception of socialism that has always been popular amongst vanguardists.
Disputes about how to get socialism usually turn out to be disputes about what it is. For instance, it is apparent that if socialism is to be a democratic society a majority of the population must opt for it before it can come into existence. Any minority which intends to impose what it calls "socialism" on the rest of the population against their wishes or, for that matter, without their express consent, obviously intends to rule undemocratically.
A minority which uses violence to get power must use violence to retain power. The means cannot be divorced from the ends.
Vanguardism often emerges in the minds of people who know that there is a lot wrong with society and aim at something radically different. But they avoid facing up to the unfortunate fact that at the moment the great majority of workers do not want a fundamental change. Workers grumble and desire palliatives (or these days desire that things don’t get any worse) but they don't seek the end of institutions like the police, the armed forces, nor even the Queen, let alone class ownership, the wages system, money and frontiers - the abolition of which is necessary for socialism.
It is this refusal to face squarely that the bulk of the working class still accepts capitalism which leads to notions of elitism and insurrectionary violence, to the idea that workers must be manipulated by slogan-shouting demagogues brandishing reformist bait. Discussion, the most potent means of changing attitudes, is treated with contempt. 'Action' for its own sake is lauded to the skies.
We socialists have never tried to forget the obvious fact that the working class does not yet want socialism, but we are encouraged by the knowledge that we, as members of the working class, have reacted to capitalism by opposing it.
There is nothing remarkable about us as individuals, so it cannot be a hopeless task to set about changing the ideas of our fellow workers - especially as they learn from their own experience of capitalism.How much closer we would be to socialism today if all those who spend their time advocating 'transitional demands' were on our side!
Marx's (and the Socialist Party's) conception of the working class as all those who have to sell their labour power, from road sweepers to computer programmers, is inconvenient to members of vanguard groups, who often believe that they themselves are not members of the working class, whilst admitting that it is the working class which must achieve socialism. "The workers" cannot grasp anything so "abstract" as socialism, it is claimed.
But the exponents of vanguardism do understand it, or so they say.Evidently then, they are not workers: they are the 'intelligentsia' or 'middle class'. They constitute the officer corps. The workers are the instrument, but they wield the instrument. Socialism is a paper hoop through which the working class, performing circus animals, must be coaxed to jump. They are the ringmasters.
Or, as their hero Trotsky saw it, the masses are the steam, and the leadership is the piston which gives the steam direction. This notion that they are not members of the working class explains why these people sometimes say to socialists: "What are you doing to get in among the working class?" The socialist worker who is only too chronically and daily aware that they are in and of the working class finds such idealism baffling but entirely consistent with the general confusion exhibited by reform-peddling leaders everywhere.
Edited from the pamhlet The Market System Must Go