In 4 paragraphs and 376 words from the book “Anarchism – Arguments For & Against”, the anarcho-communist theoritician Albert Meltzer, following a long tradition of anarchist shallowness of critique, tried to take down the Marxist concept of the vanguard. He made the following arguments:
- The vanguard party was conjured by Lenin in a country where the proletariat was only a small part of the population, and this small part according to Meltzer’s Lenin had to be led by “shrewd, calculating, ruthless, and highly-exudated people” organized into a party of upper class intellectuals who had then the “right and the duty to wipe out all other parties”;
- Applying this in countries that have a large proletariat (like Britain) is “incredible”;
- Leaderships of self-proclaimed vanguard parties stress the qualities possessed by the leadership of the Bolshevik party and pretend to possess the same type of leadership charisma.
Let’s unpack this criticism and, through a somewhat lengthy countercriticism, reconstruct the theory of the vanguard party.
First, a definition is required: the vanguard party is an organization of the working class that comprises its organized advanced detachment. In organizing the working class, the vanguard party rallies around itself the masses against the capitalist-imperialist system. As has been previously outlined on Anti-Imperialism.com, the struggle for communism isn’t an endeavor of the working class alone, it is a long march against oppression by all the oppressed groups of society whose dominated condition is rooted in class conflict. Hence, we can’t speak of the vanguard without first grasping who the masses it leads are.
Who are the masses? The subaltern and dispersed motor force of history
In Maoist doctrine, the masses are the people in society who are excluded and dominated by a hegemonic class structure, in our case the all-round domination of finance capital over means of coercion, means of production, production of culture, means of information, and so on. In the case of First World countries (pardon the generalization), the masses can generally said to be the basic proletariat, the part of the labor aristocracy which renounces its community of interest with imperialism, the part of the petty bourgeoisie which relinquishes its aspirations to join the ranks of the haute bourgeoisie, and part of the lumpenproletariat. The masses are the people who stand to benefit from the supersession of the current system; it is in the interests of the masses to build revolution, it is in the interests of the hegemons to fight it.
Needless to say, the masses aren’t a uniform mass of people. Rather, they are divided into social classes: people who share a common relationship to the means of production, a distinct way of life, interests antagonistic to those of other classes, unity transcending local boundaries, a collective consciousness of themselves as a class, and political organizations serving as vehicles for their class interests. The division runs further, with capitalism color-coding the members of its classes, genderizing them, or stamping them as disabled. In order to draw a social cartography of the terrain of struggle that indicates where to draw forces for revolution, we must engage in class analysis and understand the dimensions of prejudice that come with class structures.
While the monopoly capitalist class may be small, its allies are plenty. A tendency in the First Worldist left, often a central component of anarchist thought and indeed a mark of Meltzer’s ideology, understands the social relation of class as a social essence; this way, the working class and each of its individual components are considered essentially revolutionary. This formulation must rejected and recognized as an idealist attempt to overcome the problems of a largely embourgeoisiefied population by refusing to designate it as such. In reality, the working class is as divided as the capitalist class. It should be a truism that the ideology embraced by the working class is the ideology of the ruling class, as that is the “common sense” they are socialized to. It should be a truism that the fragmentation of the working class into various colored collars (and corresponding craft unionism as opposed to class unionism) and into various nationalities creates contradictions internal to the class, which have often become antagonistic. It should be a truism that sections of the working class have a community of interest with the imperialist system, and hence side with it against lower sections of the proletariat, hence the popularity of anti-immigrant policies in the US and support for restrictions of even “legitimate” workers from crossing the border among the unionized labor aristocrats.
In this atmosphere of deep division, the capitalist class can find a plethora of allies which would, were it not for the existence of imperialism and the oppression of nations and genders, otherwise side with a militant proletariat. This division compels us revolutionary communists to not strategize in void without an account of class, nation and gender; doing so would lead to rank opportunism, meaning the placing of the real interests on the workers on the back burner in order to temporarily gain new rank-and-file members which actually damage the long term interest of the masses.
As outlined in a preceding article, the working class is fragmented along the lines of nations, i.e. historically constituted blocs of classes. Following from the previously presented argument, we reiterate that the Afrikan population in North Amerika has virtually no share of finance capital since, according to the latest available data from the US government’s Census Bureau, as of 2007, out of 1.9 million Afrikan-owned businesses, 1.8 million don’t employ wage workers; this is a sizable petty bourgeoisie which could either be part of the masses, or the enemy.
Another vacillating class is the lumpenproletariat, i.e. those with a precarious relation to the means of production. The components of this class acquire their means of subsistence with occupations close to those of the proletariat, but which are precarious or even illegal. This class is typical of metropolitan and urban areas, a section of society that is excluded by capitalism from capitalist society, victims of urbanization without industrialization. Often, these elements possess a conscious understanding of their oppression, a consciousness that could be made revolutionary. Take, for instance, the spontaneous ideology of the Latin Kings: while not Marxist, the spontaneous consciousness of lumpen organizations approaches national liberation ideas. The King manifesto argues that a King member who has reached full consciousness “learns that his ills lie at the roots of a system completely alien to his train of thought and his natural development, due to the components of dehumanization that exist therein”.
From their Manifesto: “The New King is the end product of complete awareness, perceiving three-hundred and sixty degrees of enlightenment; his observations are free and independent; his thoughts are not clouded by any form of prejudice… For him there are no horizons between races, sexes and senseless labels, including gang labels for recognition. The New King no longer views the rival warrior as the cause of his ills; instead, he fights against the Anti-King System (social injustices and inequality), a system which seeks to deny and oppress his people: the Oppressed Third World Peoples.”
It is often said, especially by Lenin and Mao, that it would take a lot of discipline to win lumpenproletarians over to the struggle; however, all classes require the same, from the class-suicidal petty bourgeoisie to the backward sections of the masses to the labor aristocratic strata of society. In the end, the relationship between the communist movement and the lumpenproletariat with its organizations is competitive, and our aim should be winning over the advanced lumpen in communities while isolating the backward criminal elements.
In general, in this amalgamation of people, we can distinguish three trends: the advanced masses, the intermediate masses, and the backward masses. People show different levels of political consciousness relative to their history and relative to the issue which is brought in front of them. For instance, while a section of the working class might have correct ideas as regards racism, others might not; we place the former in the category of the advanced, the vacillating in the category of intermediate, and those who openly proclaim racism in the category of the backward. The different levels of political consciousness is why a mass line is necessary, as only a section of the masses holds correct ideas which must be popularized to the rest of them. If the masses were uniformly advanced, no vanguard would be needed; if the masses were uniformly backward, no revolution would be possible. Needless to say, the party is itself part of the masses, more specifically part of its advanced elements.
Ideological state apparatuses, the reproduction of relations of production, and interpellated subjects
A concrete revolutionary strategy requires a Marxist analysis of the characteristics of capitalism, as we may only know the specifics of the workers’ struggle when we understand the capitalism against which this struggle is directed. Hence, a theoretical intervention is required in order to make us able to transform capitalism into communism. When a ruling class rules, its exercise of power is partially dependent on methods of persuasion. The repression of a class can’t take the form of constant coercion, as that would amount to endless civil war, a situation that isn’t quite profitable for the capitalist logic of accumulation. For the continuation of the system, it is required that its subjects’ propensity to sell their labor power for a wage is reproduced daily. The reproduction of the subjection of the working class to the political supremacy of the capitalists is achieved by means of ideology, i.e. the way people imagine their relationship to society and the economy.
Capitalism must reproduce its own social conditions to survive. The superstructural conditions of the system (i.e. cultural, ideological, etc.) aren’t reproduced automatically, and therein lies a vulnerability to capitalism’s legitimacy and continued functioning. In need of support for the system, the capitalist class has to shape the political field against contradictory social forces. To shape people’s ideology, capitalist ideological apparatuses dominate the categories of thought people use to imagine their place in the societies in which they live and enforce thinking in specific ways about their identities, their relation to institutions, to other individuals, etc., and acting accordingly. Ironically, the type of subjectivity imposed on people by capitalism is that of a subject whose subjectivity is self-generated. The masses under capitalism are interpellated as subjects who allegedly generate their belief systems autonomously, as well their actions, their institutions, their life choices, etc. When people are made to think conformity is a life they independently chose, they autonomously and spontaneously accept subjection.
A conscious intervention in and contestation of the realm of ideology is hence required in order to reproduce subjects with a communist ideology, revolutionary subjects.
Who is the revolutionary subject? The oppressed engaged in class struggle
“The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” – Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach“
Let’s start from saying what the revolutionary subject isn’t: it isn’t an essence. Many Marxists tend to speak of the revolutionary subject as the working class in general. In reality, no social group is inherently a revolutionary subject; not the workers, not any nation, not any gender. It should be obvious this isn’t the case: were workers in the White Army fighting the Bolsheviks a revolutionary subject? Of course not, and this ties to the discussion we had on the masses and their differential levels of political development.
Against this essentialism, we counterpose the revolutionary subject as the oppressed groups that transform themselves into revolutionary subjects through class struggle. In struggle against the capitalist system, the working class and other social groups transform themselves; the working class goes from being a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself. This is where the concept of revolutionary practice becomes important. Revolutionary practice can’t be improvised; a political program, organizational-technical skills, and revolutionary theory are needed for it. These can only be coordinated by a political organization operating on a centralism in motion, accountable and democratic.
What is the vanguard? The advanced detachment of the working class
The vanguard is the advanced political element of the working class, which unites, organizes, and guides the masses in revolution. Working class movements require leadership in order to coordinate action, draw political lessons from past mistakes and victories, and for the organization of action on the basis of these lessons. By organizing people who have a systematic understanding of revolutionary theory, possess technical and organizational skills to put this theory into practice, and accept the maximum program of revolution, the party is able to rise above the momentary interests of economistic struggles for limited reforms and raise the masses to the understanding of class interests.
We proceed from the premise that class interests don’t spontaneously give rise to political. While Maoism doesn’t underestimate mass initiative, it understands its limitations. Mass spontaneous movements don’t produce revolutions; the masses requires a political program for revolution, something that can’t be improvised. It is also important to recognize that total spontaneity doesn’t in fact exist: movements always take place with influence from outside and forms of leadership that may be formal or informal. Pretending a structure and a leadership don’t exist is dangerous, as it makes hidden hierarchies unacknowledged and unaccountable. Not having a structured division of tasks between cadres exposes the movement to the risk of not being able to accomplish political tasks.
Communist organization combats the trend of unacknowledged and unaccountable leadership by means of democratic centralism, a centralism which continually adapts to the real movement, synthesizing the actions of the masses into a political program and ensuring continuity and accumulation of experience. It’s understandable that one would critique the notion of the vanguard party as elitist and based on charismatic leadership; the communist movement has a long history of perpetrating this mistake, which lies in the theoretical misunderstanding of the party as embodiment of class consciousness. The Amerikan New Communist Movement, for instance, neglected the construction of dual power for the purpose of party building in the void. These organizations, seeing themselves as the only embodiments of the consciousness of the working class, embraced elitism and saw their task as throwing consciousness down to workers like one would throw crumbs to pidgeons from above.
The growth of consciousness of the masses, however, isn’t inculcated to them by a cabal of deep thinkers; rather, it is formed by the unity of their own self-activity, their spontaneous moements articulated through their institutions, and the leadership given by the party, which seizes elements of communist thinking and practice as they arise spontaneously, coordinate them, and generalize them in order to make the workers aware of their own potential, an ability stifled by the ideology of the capitalist class. This is why dual power and institutions of the oppressed are important: they express the growing understanding of class society by the proletariat, they unite it in common struggles, and through them the proletariat learns to rule itself. In this practice, the party elaborates elements of a program implicit in the struggle of the oppressed, and contrasts it with the backward ideas of the masses, attempting to isolate backward ideas and generalize advanced onces. More on this later.
Class interests aren’t expressed spontaneously, they require forms of political organization that limit to a degree or another the agency of its members. The capitalists have also historically utilized centralized political power in political organizations to gain state power. Improvised actions can’t have a long term organic character; when they do, they are supported by informal and hidden hierarchies or worse, personality rule based on prestige. This seems to be what a lot of the Occupy movement was about. Economistic and reformist struggles must be turned into political interventions, and this is done by organizing the masses through the influence the party wields through mass organizations and dual power. Organizing the masses requires a division of labor within the party; revolutionaries need technical and political skills to accomplish tasks.
Cadres, the basic component of the party
The vanguard party, as we’ve said, isn’t a small cabal of conspirators, but rather an organic organization with a basic unit: the cadre.
To paraphrase Che, the cadre is the person possessing a political development comprehensive enough to interpret the directives emanating from the party, understand them thoroughly, and convey them as orientation to the masses, at the same time understanding the masses and functioning as transmission belts between the masses and the center. Hence, the cadre practices democratic centralism and is rigorous and disciplined. They have skills, technical and ideological, and a developed political consciousness; they are red and expert, capable of analyzing concrete situations concretely.
“We must, know how to use cadres well. In the final analysis, leadership involves two main responsibilities: to work out ideas, and to use cadres well. Such things as drawing up plans, making decisions, and giving orders and directives, are all in the category of ‘working out ideas.’ To put the ideas into practice, we must weld the cadres together and encourage them to go into action; this comes into the category of ‘using the cadres well.’” – Mao Zedong, “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War”
“We must know how to take good care of cadres. There are several ways of doing so. First, give them guidance. This means allowing them a free hand in their work so that they have the courage to assume responsibility and, at the same time, giving them timely instructions so that, guided by the Party’s political line, they are able to make full use of their initiative. Second, raise their level. This means educating them by giving them the opportunity to study so that they can enhance their theoretical understanding and their working ability. Third, check up on their work, and help them sum up their experience, carry forward their achievements and correct their mistakes. To assign work without checking up and to take notice only when serious mistakes are made – that is not the way to take care of cadres. Fourth, in general, use the method of persuasion with cadres who have made mistakes, and help them correct their mistakes. The method of struggle should be confined to those who make serious mistakes and nevertheless refuse to accept guidance. Here patience is essential. It is wrong lightly to label people “opportunists” or lightly to begin “waging struggles” against them. Fifth, help them with their difficulties. When cadres are in difficulty as a result of illness, straitened means or domestic or other troubles, we must be sure to give them as much care as possible. This is how to take good care of cadres.” – Mao Zedong, “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War”
On discipline: self-imposed or top-down
The bourgeoisie is forced by the circumstances of its own rule (a rule by a minority) to rule both by the priest and the gendarme; rule is a question of discipline. The “priest”, or the system of ideological hegemony, forces people into self-discipline by socializing them with a specific conduct protocol common to society, enforced by their own morality, convictions, etc.; the “gendarme”, or the apparatus of violence wielded by the bourgeoisie, enforces laws which maintain the current forms of property. Discipline must be met with discipline, and vanguard parties must be disciplined. The difference between communist and capitalist discipline is that while the latter is imposed, the former is self-imposed and spontaneous. Communist discipline is marked by the traits of participation, dedication, professionalism, specialization, and the practice of democratic centralism.
On the mass line method: “from the masses, to the masses”
Society is the totality of relations between the people who live in it. Because of this, it is the people who make its history. This concept is central to the Maoist method of leadership: the mass line. The mass line method, summarized by the slogan “from the masses, to the masses”, can be outlined by the three following components:
- the gathering of ideas from the masses;
- the systematization of these ideas into a political program for revolution;
- the propagation of this program among the masses.
“Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking. Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world. In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures.” – Mao Zedong, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”
The masses are the people who engage in social practice, the source of correct ideas. Because they are unorganized, the masses and their correct ideas aren’t systematized but rather scattered. Moreover, they have many correct ideas, and many incorrect ideas. A political organization is here required to gather the ideas, correct and incorrect, by approaching the masses and engaging with them. This is the first step of the mass line.
The second step is the systematization process; after a social investigation, the ideas of the masses must be systematized. Good, correct ideas have to be upheld, bad and incorrect ideas have to be discarded. The correct ideas are made into a political program of the working class, a program for the seizure of state power.
The third step is bringing this program and plan of action back to the masses, and the cadres play a very important role in the process. It’s important to propagate the program to the masses; by keeping the program on a desk, the people would never use it to change society. In the process of propagating the political program and putting it into action, the party and the masses realize what errors have been committed in its formation, and continue the process of synthesizing experience into program through the mass line. The method of the mass line is continuous.
“Mobilizing architects and engineer to design the plans of the future society and the means of reaching it is within the reach of anyone. It is precisely this concept of the political line that we categorically reject. We don’t think that in order to emancipate themselves the masses need to adhere to a program that political representatives fabricate from without. We think that little by little, starting from their own experience, we must assist the masses in culling out that which is essential, which has a general, universal value.
In short, the elaboration of a program, which is a central preoccupation for we communists, of a program for power, that is, the program that will show that we are a force, candidates for power like any political force worthy of the name: the way in which we will elaborate this program is by multiplying the individual programs of struggle, by beginning with individual programs in the workplaces. A program made with the mineworkers or the construction workers to impose safety at the worksite, seem to me to be more important than 150 pages written by safety engineers, even if they’re from the Socialist Party. Multiplying these individual programs on the different aspects of the conditions of the working class there will then be an experiential material basis that has truly issued from the immediate will of the masses.
We will then have to carry out a labor of systematization, at first expressed in the form of theses that will be sent out to the masses, discussed by the masses, and then definitively elaborated in the form of a small pamphlet of a few pages with the different objectives, the means of obtaining them, etc. In the end, this will be the program, the general program of the communists in France. This, incidentally, is why it isn’t up to us to decide to write the program. We can only decide to assist the masses in multiplying the embryos of particular programs…” – Benny Lévy, “Investigation into the Maoists in France“
Do capitalists have anything to teach us?
It may be useful to digress into what capitalists themselves and their forms of organization may teach us. In the past, Anti-Imperialism.com editor Nikolai Brown has reviewed “Good to Great”, a book by Jim Collins outlining the differences between “great” firms, i.e. highly successful firms, and “good” competitors, i.e. mediocre but similarly situated firms.
“According to Collins, a handful of factors separate ‘great’ from ‘good’ companies:
Level Five Leadership describes leaders who are a “paradoxical blend or personal humility and professional will,” and who combine “fanatic discipline,” “productive paranoia,” and “empirical creativity.”
Confronting the Brutal Facts, and Never Lose Fate states that a business organization must “maintain unwavering faith that it can prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time have the discipline to confront the brutal facts of the current reality.”
The Hedgehog Concept implies a company must focus on something it can be the best at.
A Culture of Discipline in which the need for bureaucracy and excessive controls is replaced by employees and managers that are positively motivated in the interest of the firm .
Technology Accelerators tend to speed up but are never the primary cause of the success or failure of a given firm.
The Flywheel Concept implies the fact that success develops over a long period of time, resembling the result of the process of relentless pushing on a heavy flywheel in one direction, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough and beyond.
Ironically, none of the principles are completely outside the scope of successful Communist practice. This should not be surprising: Communist organizations and capitalist firms both incorporate centralized structures to accomplish differing ends. Capitalist firms utilize a boards of directors, who represent stock holders and devise and implement policies to out-profit its competition. Communist parties, on the other hand, devise and implement policies to organize the cultural, social, political, and military aspects of revolution. No doubt, proletarian parties and capitalist firms that are successful (on their own terms) share some common features.”
As communists, we reject the centrality of prefigurative politics, i.e. the replication of future modes of organization sought by a political group while the conditions for the future society aren’t met. The role of revolutionaries today isn’t pretending the current hegemonic power structure doesn’t exist, but rather combating it; this requires us to shed notions of current utopianism and complete autonomy, useless as weapons against imperialism.
Prefigurative vs. concrete organizational requirements
“To sum up, we must reckon with the growing movement, which has increased a hundredfold, with the new tempo of the work, with the freer atmosphere and the wider field of activity. The work must be given an entirely different scope. Methods of training should be refocussed from peaceful instruction to military operations. Young fighters should be recruited more boldly, widely, and rapidly into the ranks of all and every kind of our organisations. Hundreds of new organisations should be set up for the purpose without a moment’s delay. Yes, hundreds; this is no hyperbole, and let no one tell me that it is “too late” now to tackle such a broad organisational job. No, it is never too late to organise. We must use the freedom we are getting by law and the freedom we are taking despite the law to strengthen and multiply the number of Party organisations of all varieties.” – Vladimir Lenin, “New Tasks and New Forces”
In “New Tasks and New Forces”, Lenin moves from his more centralized concept of the party to a new form of organization capable of incoroprating the most people possible in the party and party-led organizations, and in later works returns to the centralized model of organization. Why is this?
A paramount principle of Leninist thought is the following: “There is no such thing as abstract truth, truth is always concrete”. In other words, strategy and tactics are the product of a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. The type of organization Lenin stressed was arrived at by an assessment of the concrete circumstances surrounding the people and their enemies; they aren’t the product of an abstract and prefigured concept of how the revolution will develop. In 1905, when the article was written, the masses were very active and reflected what we call a political culture of opposition, which brought the party to retool itself in order to direct a revolutionary stream of consciousness at the right target.
Preparing for revolution: subjective and objective factors
Maoists understand that the objective conditions for revolution aren’t predictable as they are necessarily tied to world-systemic openings. They also understand that the proletariat can’t engage in a seizure of power without military experience. Hence, our task is building the subjective conditions required for the seizure of power.
The two factors of revolution, subjective and objective, can be broadly summarized as follows:
“Political cultures of opposition [i.e., the subjective factor – K.V.] include the institutions, working coalitions, historical understandings, and psychological conditionings which become instruments in targeting, opposing, and overthrowing an existing set of rulers. A world-systemic opening [i.e., the objective factor – K.V.] is a moment of hesitation, internal conflict, error, or ineptitude on the part of international imperialist forces relating to the best means to stem the success of a particular revolution.” – Nikolai Brown, “Behind Enemy Lines”
The subjective factor: party, people’s army, united front
The subjective factor in Maoist doctrine has three components: the party, the people’s army, the united front.
The party has been outlined throughout this text, and so we may sum up the conclusions: it is the cadre-based organization operating according to democratic centralism which fulfills the tasks of organizing the proletariat into a conscious political class by means of generalizing the correct ideas of the masses, forming a communist political program for the overthrow of capitalist society, and providing needed centralized and accountable democratic leadership to the working class movement, re-centering its struggle from economic and reformist demands to the aim of seizing state power.
Let’s remember this organization arises out of the necessity to deal with the uneven development of the consciousness of the masses, and that the enemy also has vanguards which can utilize this unevenness at the advantage of imperialism. The rank and file of nazifascist movements of the 20s, 30s, and 40s were mostly working class; the political defeat of the communist vanguard permitted the fascist vanguard to lead the working class against its own interests.
The party has two weapons to wield in the process of revolution: the united front and the people’s army.
“In order to win a people’s war, it is imperative to build the broadest possible united front and formulate a series of policies which will ensure the fullest mobilization of the basic masses as well as the unity of all the forces that can be united.” – Lin Biao, “Long Live the Victory of People’s War!”
The united front is the method through which the communist party forms a unified coalition with classes and oppressed groups on the basic of a political program, which can be a minimalist or a maximalist one. The purposes of the united front are mainly two and are categorized in agitational and organizational purposes. In the category of agitation, we put the actions of coalition and linkage which the united front carries out in order to expand the base of people sympathetic to the party; in the category of organization we put the efforts at forming mass organizations which rally people around political goals, such as anti-fascist work, agitation for the freedom of movement of migrants, anti-war goals, etc.
There are two types of united front: tactical and strategic. The tactical united front is the one organized around minimum programs for the defense of the immediate interests of the working class. An example of this would be a united front articulated around the objectives of anti-fascist work. As for the strategic united front, it’s the one that aims for the supersession of capitalism-imperialism and the end goal of the various tactical united fronts.
In every united front, the communist party must strive to exercise leadership by means of uniting the left-wing of the front, winning over the center and neutralizing the right-wing. The general strategy of the united front is to isolate the enemy and unite all those who can be united among the masses in action under the leadership of the party. Coordinating and facilitating the work among middle forces, developing good relations with other political forces, and functioning as schools for mass work where activists who may in the future become party cadres learn organizational skills, the united front is a very important and necessary for the victory of revolution.
“Without a People’s army, the people have nothing.” – Mao Zedong, “On Coalition Government”
The working class can’t seize power with no military experience, nor can it predict when revolutionary openings will occur. For this reason, the communist movement and the masses it leads should have a military doctrine and practice before the opening arrives. Insurrectionist attempts at revolution have a long history of failure, whereas people’s war is recognized to be a powerful military doctrine even by the imperialists.
“Our starting point is this: each class has its own specific form of war, and therefore its own strategy. The proletariat has developed its strategy, people’s war, and it is a superior strategy. The bourgeoisie can never have a strategy superior to this. Moreover, there will never be a strategy more developed than that of the proletariat. It is a question of studying military processes in the world. Each class has always brought forth its own form of waging war, and its own strategy. And always, the superior strategy has defeated the inferior strategy, and the new class always has the superior strategy and that’s what people’s war is. There is evidence to prove this. There are military analysts who put it like this: communists, when they have applied their principles, have never lost a war; they have only lost wars when they have not applied their principles.” – An interview with Abimael Guzmán
It is not the purpose of this article however to make a case for people’s war; suffice it to say the history of the communist movement has shown that without a people’s army, the people can’t obtain political power.
The objective factors: world-systemic openings
“The fundamental law of revolution, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the twentieth century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the “lower classes” do not want to live in the old way and the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.” – Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder”
In the course of capitalism’s cyclical development, the system goes into crises; these crises have many aspects to them. They are economic, social, political, military, etc. Crises can erupt because of a plethora of factors, such as the rivalry between imperialist powers (as is the case in Ukraine today), an economic crisis (such as the Great Recession), a crisis of politico-military legitimacy (as was the case with the Vietnam War for an important example), and so on. These political situations set the stage for the strengthening of revolutionary currents among the masses; however, only a communist vanguard organization able to lead the masses and able to draw them into political life can direct these developments against capitalism, else enemy vanguards will guide the masses against their own interests. To overthrow the system when it is weak, we must be strong, we must have networks, united fronts, embryos of a people’s army, and a disciplined democratic centralist party, all converging into a struggle for state power.
Long story short…
The masses’ political consciousness develops unevenly and their spontaneous ideology is the dominant hegemonic one of the ruling class. Vanguard parties, accountable democratic centralist organizations, help systematize the correct ideas of the masses into a program and isolate backward ones by presenting political programs applying the mass line. Under this political leadership, it is possible to develop a united front, a people’s war and a concrete military doctrine for the seizure of state power.
Meltzer’s argument, then, is built on a misunderstanding of the proletariat as necessarily able to organize spontaneously, which is a false proposition given the cultural-ideological hegemony of the capitalist class, and on a misrepresentation of the method of communist work, which follows the mass line.