The vanguard in this more strict sense was expressed by Trotsky when he wrote: “The proletariat can become imbued with the confidence necessary for a governmental overthrow only if . . . it feels above it a farsighted, firm, and confident leadership. This brings us to the last premise—by no means the last in importance—of the conquest of power: the revolutionary party as a tightly welded and tempered vanguard of the class” (Trotsky 2008:745-46).
The taking of power occurs as a single historic event, such as the insurrection of October 25 and the assumption of power by the Congress of Soviets on October 26. But the revolution is a continuing process, involving the development of the revolutionary project and the protection of the revolution against counterrevolutionary attacks, which assume a variety of forms. In Trotsky’s conception, the revolutionary party, as the vanguard of the revolutionary class, has an important role to play in this on-going revolutionary process: formulating a clear direction that can provide the basis for unity and that can give the revolutionary class confidence that it can overcome all challenges and obstacles.
The revolutionary party seeks to formulate its own political, intellectual, and moral perspective that is different from and opposed to bourgeois assumptions and opinions and is based on the thoughts and desires of the revolutionary class. “Lenin taught the party to create its own social opinion, resting upon the thoughts and feelings of the rising class. Thus by a process of selection and education, and in continual struggle, the Bolshevik Party created not only a political but a moral medium of its own, independent of bourgeois social opinion and implacably opposed to it” (Trotsky 2008:739).
The Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky functioned as a revolutionary vanguard party from the end of April 1917 until it was undermined by bureaucratization and by a petty bourgeois counterrevolution, the signs of which were evident by 1924, according to the Ted Grant (1997). There are other important examples of revolutionary parties that defined direction, unified the people, and inspired hope and confidence: the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong, the Vietnam Workers’ Party under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh; and the Cuban Communist Party under the leadership of Fidel Castro. These cases represent the most enduring and significant revolutions of the twentieth century, indicating the importance of the development of a revolutionary party that functions as a vanguard in the strict sense.
In my experiences in Cuba, I have found that there is a clear difference between the vanguard and the people, not with respect to privileges or material conditions, but in relation to understanding. The members of the vanguard, which consists of perhaps 25% of the population, have an informed global and historical understanding of national and international dynamics, and they are committed to revolutionary values. Most are members of the Party, but not all are; many have developed leadership qualities through the assuming of leadership roles in the various mass organizations of workers, farmers, students, women, and neighborhoods at the national, provincial, and local levels. The vanguard has been formed through fifty-four years of revolution, and its formation is a significant achievement of the revolution.
The majority of people, on the other hand, tend to think much more concretely, concerned with issues such as the price of food or the quality of public transportation. They have less of a grasp of national and international issues, although there is a general orientation of support for and appreciation of the revolution and its leaders.
In light of this distinction between the vanguard and the people, it makes sense to speak of the necessity in the revolutionary process for a vanguard party that explains to the people, reminding them of fundamental facts and values, and that plays a leadership role in the revolutionary process. The vanguard cannot lead, of course, without the support of the people, so the vanguard must be part of the people and must understand their concerns and needs, as the Cuban revolutionary leadership understands.
Revolutionary processes lift up charismatic leaders, and there is an intimate relation between the charismatic leader and the vanguard. The vanguard is formed by the charismatic leader, and as it develops, it seeks to become the institutionalization of charismatic authority, so that when the charismatic leader is no longer present, the vanguard is able to lead with legitimate authority, basing its decisions on the teachings of the charismatic leader.
As we reflect on the possibilities for popular revolution in the countries of the North, one of the issues that we must address is the question of how to form a vanguard, a sector of the people that has an informed understanding of fundamental historical and social facts and a commitment to universal human values; a vanguard that would be able to educate the people concerning the concrete steps that must be taken to advance toward a more just, democratic, and sustainable world; a vanguard that earns the respect of the people through its example and through its capacity to respectfully explain understandings that are alternatives to the ideological distortions that the people have internalized. As I have indicated in previous posts, an important dimension of this process is encounter with the revolutionary movements formed by the Third World, which offer critical analyses of the world-system from below.
Grant, Ted. 1997. Rusia—De la revolución a la contrarrevolución: Un análisis marxista. Prólogo de Alan Woods. Traducción de Jordi Martorell. Madrid: Fundación Federico Engels. [Originally published in English as: RUSSIA—From Revolution to Counterrevolution].
Trotsky, Leon. 2008. History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
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