Here’s an old piece that somehow still seems relevant now that we’re in a new period, and one David Graeber had a hand in launching….
On Natural Vanguards
A Comment on David Graeber’s ‘Twilight of Vanguardism’
By Carl Davidson
I think those opposed to “vanguardism,” or even those in favor of it, often have their own definitions of the term that are too narrow. For instance, at any given time, I find it useful to try to figure out the proportions of advanced, middle and backward among the general population in regards to politics. The backward are those who like and defend the existing order of oppression, the middle don’t want to be bothered with politics all that much because it doesn’t make sense in their daily lives and they are focused on themselves and family, and the advanced are those who see the present order as unfair, unjust and/or oppressive and would like to do something to change it.
This “sectoring” is fluid; any given individual can move from one to another from time to time as conditions vary. But at any given time, the advanced are usually a minority, although they may be a relatively large minority.
Within the advanced, moreover, there are those who are presently active and those who are waiting to do something, those who are in organizations, mass or otherwise, and those who haven’t joined anything yet, and those who think just a few major reforms will do and those who think the whole system has to go.
This narrows things down a bit. If you look at the advanced who are active, in an organization and who think the whole order needs to be replaced, you have what I would call the revolutionary vanguard. Notice that I didn’t say they had to be in ONE organization, or have ONE program, or leader. At some point they might, although it’s unlikely and certainly doesn’t happen by declaration or fiat or self-assertion. In any case, this grouping is what I would call the “natural vanguard” that shrinks or swells with the ebb and flow of class struggle and social crisis.
Now there are many organizations in the “natural vanguard.” Some better, some worse. Some on an open road; some stuck in a cul-de-sac.
Does any one or any one cluster of them ever get to be “the vanguard party?”
Only if certain conditions are met, including one very practical but often ignored factor: your group gets to be a LEADER if it has FOLLOWERS.
This seems clear as day to me, but we still have dozens of groups running around claiming to be the leader, but they don’t have any followers or supporters to speak of. They have the mistaken notion that a ‘correct line’ or ‘scientific program’ is sufficient, even granting that there is such a thing. Myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that I much prefer to work in groups that deal in ‘fruitful working hypotheses’ rather than ‘correct lines.’
I would say that to be the vanguard party, or the vanguard anything, a group or alliance of groups has to earn that designation by, first, winning over the vast majority of the advanced sector to choose it as their own organization; and second, by then in turn winning over large numbers of the middle forces to respect and follow its course of action, at least a good part of the time. Becoming a vanguard in this sense is something that is done practically and over time. The best examples I can think of were Vietnam and China. It simply means that masses of people recognize your group’s leadership ability that they will want to defend and protect you against the enemy, and finally, will want to join your ranks and shape the group’s politics and future themselves.
All the other disputes about the “genuine” vanguard status being achieved by assembling varying sets of principles or ideological coda is more in tune with medieval theological or Talmudic disputation, rather than the kind of fresh thinking we need today.