Trotsky noted that the conditions that placed industrial workers at the vanguard of the revolution were particularly advanced with respect to Russia. Russian industry developed late, in comparison to England, France and Germany. And it developed rapidly at the beginning of the twentieth century, through investment by capitalists from Western Europe, and it immediately took the form of large-scale industry, concentrating large numbers of workers. Moreover, the workers were drafted directly from the countryside, rather than from the craft guilds of the cities, thus producing a radical social dislocation. These conditions established a proletarian leadership in Russia capable of leading workers and peasants in revolutionary action.
However, peasants and agricultural workers comprised the great majority of the laboring population of Russia. Lenin, therefore, adapted Marx to Russian conditions, conceiving a revolution of workers and peasants led by a proletarian vanguard. When the proletarian revolutions in the Western industrialized nations did not triumph, Lenin anticipated that the epicenter of the world-wide socialist revolution would move to the oppressed and colonized nations and peoples, which we today call the Third World. Thus with Lenin, there begins an evolution in Marxism, and a movement away from Marx’s concept of a vanguard formed by a Western European industrial proletariat.
Marx’s concept of the proletarian vanguard would undergo further modification with the Sinification of Marxism, the adaptation of Marx to China by Mao Zedong. In Mao’s analysis, the principal revolutionary class is the “propertyless class,” which in China consisted principally of peasants, replacing the revolutionary proletariat of Marx’s analysis.
In Vietnam, the revolution for national liberation was being carried forward by the petit bourgeoisie, with roots in the nationalism of Confucian scholars, and the peasantry. Ho Chi Minh was formed in the nationalism of the Confucian scholars, and his political activities obligated him to flee Indochina. He later was educated in the Soviet Union, enabling him to learn Marxism-Leninism. He was for many years a representative of Indochina in the Communist International, and it therefore was logical and politically sensible for Ho, when he emerged as leader of the Vietnamese Revolution, to continue with Lenin’s formulation of a peasant-worker revolution, led by a working-class vanguard. But Ho, adjusting to the conditions of Vietnam, made a subtle theoretical and practical reformulation of Lenin’s concept, by defining workers in such a broad way that they included intellectuals and peasants. Moreover, whereas Lenin supported anti-colonial national liberation movements as a transitional stage, Ho interpreted national liberation movements in the colonized regions as complementary and equal to the proletarian revolutions of the advance industrial nations.
Unlike Ho, Fidel Castro was not educated in the Soviet Union. He read the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin on his own in the library of the communist party in Cuba. He more loosely appropriated Marxist-Leninist concepts, adapting them to conditions in Cuba. In “History Will Absolve Me,” which functioned as the manifesto of the Cuban revolution from 1953 to 1959, Fidel spoke of a revolution that responds to the need of the people, and he named the sectors of the people: the unemployed, agricultural workers, industrial workers, tenant farmers, teachers, professors, small businessmen, and young professionals in health, education, engineering, law, and journalism. For Fidel, the revolution was more of a popular than a proletarian revolution.
In the movement toward “Socialism for the Twenty-First Century” in Latin America today, the tendency to speak of the people, as against the working class, has been reinforced by the fact that new social subjects of women, indigenous peoples, and ecologists have emerged, supplementing the conventional social subjects of workers, peasants, agricultural workers, students, and blacks. The vanguard is not a proletarian vanguard; rather, it is a vanguard of the people, consisting of consisting of persons from the various popular sectors who possess high levels of understanding and commitment. The vanguard comes from the people and is organically tied to the people, and it speaks and acts in defense of the people.
When I was a participant in the anti-war movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were those, including members of the Progressive Labor Party, who spoke of a vanguard of industrial workers. It was a concept that made no sense to me, for it was inconsistent with my experiences. Blacks and white middle class students had the most advanced revolutionary consciousness in the United States at the time, as a result of the fact that they had experienced, in different ways, the contradiction between US claims to be democratic and the actual practice.
The identification of a working-class vanguard in the Revolution of 1968 in the United States resulted from the error of literally applying Marx’s concepts, which were developed in a particular time and place. And it was an error with very serious consequences, for it contributed to the undermining of the credibility of Marxist-Leninist theory and practice.
But we today can avoid the error of literalism. We can study and learn from Marxist-Leninist theory and practice, so that we would be able to politically act in an intelligent and effective form. We should fully understand the following five points.
(1) Marxism is not dogmatic. Marxist-Leninist theory and practice contains no fixed and unchanging concepts and strategies, for it has been continually evolving from the time of Marx to the present day.
(2) We should study the Third World. The evolution of Marxist-Leninist theory and practice is a global phenomenon, occurring in popular social movements in all of the regions of the world, and attaining a particularly advanced expression today among the neocolonized peoples.
(3) The members of the vanguard read. The people tend to focus on concrete problems, and they often are unable to understand particular problems in the context of an evolving social system characterized by structures of domination and exploitation. In contrast, the members of the vanguard are able to understand concrete problems in historical and global context, largely as a consequence of their commitment to studying the speeches of charismatic leaders and the works of intellectuals tied to popular movements.
(4) The vanguard teaches and leads the people. If we study popular revolutions of the world, we are able to understand that the role of the vanguard is to educate the people and to lead them in emancipatory political action, seeking to transform structures of domination and exploitation and to construct social and national liberation.
(5) The vanguard comes from all races, ethnic groups, classes, genders and ages. If we observe the unfolding popular revolutions of the world, we see that the vanguard is formed by committed and responsible persons from all of the popular sectors.
The formation of a vanguard of the people is the key to popular revolution, which by definition is the taking of power by the people. Popular revolutions in the core nations of the world-system are necessary, because the global power elite is leading humanity to chaos and is placing at risk the survival of the human species and the life of the Earth.
In various posts on Marx, the Russian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, Vietnam, the Cuban Revolution and the presidential primaries in the United States, I have commented upon the concept of the vanguard, its role and its composition. These posts have been placed in the category of the Vanguard. The posts are as follows:
“Marx on the revolutionary proletariat” 1/14/2014
“The social & historical context of Marx” 1/15/2014
“The proletarian vanguard” 1/24/2014
“The revolutionary party of the vanguard” 1/25/2014
“The proletariat and the Mexican Revolution” 2/14/2014
“Ho reformulates Lenin” 5/7/2014
“Fidel adapts Marxism-Leninism to Cuba” 9/9/2014
“The pluralism of revolutionary unity” 9/18/2014
“Presidential primaries in USA” 8/25/2015
In the category of Vanguard, scroll down to locate the posts.