Lenin’s game-changing concept of the vanguard party

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin, leader with Leon Trotsky of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the most important social transformation in modern history. Lenin’s bold vision of the Bolshevik party helped working people win power for the first time.

Statue of Lenin by Slovak sculptor Emil Venkov, 1988. It is on display in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. PHOTO: Ivan Meljac
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The people, allied with the party, threw out the Tsar, the capitalists, and the landlords. Unprecedented feats!

Lenin had a profound grasp of Marxist science, the theory of the working class movement. His analysis was meticulous, his actions fearless. Hounded by the Tsar, he spent years in exile. Yet, as his wife and comrade Natalia Krupskaya wrote, hardships only made him “the kind of fighter the masses needed to lead them to victory.”

The vanguard party

Lenin understood that workers’ state power is the fundamental prerequisite for building socialism. The concept of workers’ power is simple. The hard part is how to get there. It cannot be a matter of wishful thinking. You do your thing. I’ll do mine. That’s a losing proposition.

Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.

V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, 1902

Revolutionary Marxist theory provides us with indispensable principles for the movement — that the working class must be politically independent, that it practice international solidarity, and that it recognize the revolutionary power of women and people of color. Various strategies and tactics follow from them.

A party built around these principles and put into practice by dedicated revolutionaries is a vanguard party.

Why is it called a vanguard party?

Marx explained that workers’ liberation must be the task of workers themselves. But due to daily bourgeois lies and misdirection, workers come to see through capitalist propaganda very unevenly. Some understand the need for independence from capitalism while others do not. Inevitably, workers’ viewpoints cover a wide range, especially in periods of relative quiet.

Every one of the richest newspapers in the richest countries … disseminate bourgeois lies and imperialist policy in tens of millions of copies.

V.I. Lenin, The State: A Lecture Delivered at the Sverdlov University, 1919

Among viewpoints, only that of the need for a vanguard party can lead the working class to liberation. This is not a matter of boastful self-righteousness, any more than acknowledging that the applied science of physicists and engineers is the only way to successfully launch a rocket to the moon. The vanguard party’s analysis and actions point the way forward to successful revolutionary change.

A theoretically wonderful program means nothing unless put into practice in the course of class struggles. As Lenin said, the vanguard party must be as strong and effective as possible.

Those who are really convinced that they have made progress in science would not demand freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old.

V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, 1902

The strength of the party is maximized not simply by a willingness to fight for a revolutionary program, but also through democratic centralist organization. Internally, members democratically debate political positions and determine party leadership. Then, whatever is decided on is carried out by all members. This is how unions operate when the majority decides to strike. Everyone is expected to honor the strike, regardless of how they voted.

The most advanced, or vanguard, revolutionary theory, practice, and principles of organization are the crucial ingredients for victory.

Opposition to vanguard parties

Opposition to vanguard parties typically revolves around the question of workers’ power.

Anarchists, for example, oppose vanguard parties because they oppose any state power. For them, the state itself, not the capitalist system, is the real problem. They want stateless communities which federate together.

But this is a fantasy; it fails to address defending against inevitable capitalist retaliation.

The anarchist view was clearly disproven in the Spanish Civil War. Anarchism was the leading popular movement. When anarchists won victories against Franco, they refused to take over the government and the fascists would just wait and eventually come back to power.

Social democrats believe not in a workers state replacing a capitalist state, but in workers’ parties having some say in administering the capitalist system. They reject the Marxist understanding that workers in power without bourgeois representatives is the only road to real liberation.

In 1973 Chile, for example, social democratic president Salvador Allende led a coalition government with capitalist parties. He refused to arm workers in the face of an armed enemy, preaching instead trust in the military. Unsurprisingly, he died at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA supported, reactionary coup. Several thousand were murdered and tens of thousands tortured. Similar scenarios in 1927 China, 1930s Spain, and 1965 Indonesia resulted in workers’ defeats and many hundreds of thousands killed. Non-vanguard misleadership squandered golden opportunities for victory.

Significance of the Russian Revolution

The 1917 Russian Revolution confirmed the correctness of the Marxist analysis and Leninist vanguard parties. Why? Because together they led the workers to victory.

Importantly, workers won without the class as a whole demanding socialism or even a workers state. They demanded “Peace, Bread, and Land.” Under conditions of increasingly greater struggles by workers, peasants, and soldiers, the oppressed saw that the Bolsheviks were the only party that consistently supported these demands.

So why was the revolution successful? The Bolshevik vanguard never declared itself the new state power. The Bolsheviks saw that workers, peasants, and soldiers were building soviets, their own organs of democratic decision-making. Grasping that the soviets constituted an embryonic democratic workers state, Lenin called for “All Power to the Soviets.” The oppressed people embraced this call and became the new state power.

A party is the vanguard of a class, and its duty is to lead the masses and not merely to reflect the average political level of the masses.

V.I. Lenin, Speech on the Agrarian Question, 1917

Thus, in revolutionary Russia, science from the vanguard party, in the form of a profound transformational demand, fused with the revolutionary aspirations of the insurrectionary masses. That’s how science entered the workers movement and how the workers took power.

Building a vanguard is a matter of life and death for humanity. With the world facing existential threats from climate change and expanding wars, including nuclear war, replacing capitalist power with workers’ revolution is an absolute necessity. That is why the Freedom Socialist Party adheres to the principles and practices of a vanguard party.

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