3. Relations Between the Masses and the Revolutionary Vanguard

Submitted by libcom on April 4, 2005

We have seen, with regard to the problem of the programme, what our general idea is of the relation between the oppressed class and the revolutionary Organisation defined by a programme (that is, the party in the true sense of the word). But we can't just say 'class before party' and leave it at that. We must expand on this, explain how the active minority, the revolutionary vanguard, is necessary without it becoming a military-type leadership, a dictatorship over the masses. In other words, we must show that the anarchist idea of the active minority is in no way elitist, oligarchical or hierarchical.

(1) The Need for a Vanguard
There is an idea which says that the spontaneous initiative of the masses is enough for every revolutionary possibility.

It's true that history shows us some events that we can regard as spontaneous mass advances, and these events are precious because they show the abilities and resources of the masses. But that doesn't lead at all to a general concept of spontaneity - this would be fatalistic. Such a myth leads to populist demagogy and justification of unprincipled rebellism; it can be reactionary and end in a wait-and-see policy and compromise.

Opposed to this we find a purely voluntarist idea which gives the revolutionary initiative only to the vanguard Organisation. Such an idea leads to a pessimistic evaluation of the role of the masses, to an aristocratic contempt for their political ability to concealed direction of revolutionary activity and so to defeat. This idea in fact contains the germ of bureaucratic and Statist counter-revolution.

Close to the spontaneist idea we can see a theory according to which mass organisations, unions for example, are not only sufficient for themselves but suffice for everything. This idea, which calls itself totally antipolitical, is in fact an economistic concept which is often expressed as 'pure syndicalism'. But we would point out that if the theory wants to hold good then its supporters must refrain from formulating any programme, any final statement. Otherwise they will be constituting an ideological Organisation, in however small a way, or forming a leadership sanctioning a given orientation. So this theory is only coherent if it limits itself to a socially neutral understanding of social problems, to empiricism.

Equally removed from spontaneism, empiricism and voluntarism we stress the need for a specific revolutionary anarchist Organisation, understood as the conscious and active vanguard of the people.

The Nature of the Role of the Revolutionary Vanguard
The revolutionary vanguard certainly exercises a guiding and leading role in relations to the movement of the masses. Arguments about this seem pointless to us as what other use could a revolutionary Organisation have? Its very existence attests to its leading, guiding character. The real questions is to know how this role is to be understood, what meaning we give to the word 'leading'.

The revolutionary Organisation tends to be created from the fact that the most conscious workers feel its necessity when confronted by the unequal progress and inadequate cohesion of the masses. What must be made clear is that the revolutionary Organisation should not constitute a power over the masses. its role as guide should be thought of as being to formulate and express an ideological orientation, both organisational and tactical - an orientation specified, elaborated and adapted on the basis of the experiences and desires of the masses. In this way the organisation's directives are not orders from outside but rather the mirrored expression of the general aspirations of the people. Since the directing function of the revolutionary Organisation cannot possibly be coercive it can only be revealed by its trying to get its ideas across successfully, by its giving the mass of the people a thorough knowledge of its theoretical principles and the main lines of its tactics. It is a struggle through ideas and through example. And if it's not forgotten that the programme of the revolutionary Organisation, the path and the means that it shows, reflect the experiences and desires of the masses - that the organised vanguard is basically the mirror of the exploited class - then it's clear that leading is not dictating but coordinated orientation, that on the contrary it opposes any bureaucratic manipulation of the masses, military style discipline or unthinking obedience.

The vanguard must set itself the task of developing the direct political responsibility of the masses, it must aim to increase the masses ability to organise themselves. So this concept of leadership is both natural and raises awareness. In the same way the better prepared, more mature militants inside the Organisation have the role of guide and educator to other members, so that all may become well informed and alert in both the theoretical and the practical field, so that all may become animators in their turn.

The organised minority is the vanguard of a larger army and takes its reason for being from that army - the masses. If the active minority, the vanguard, breaks away from the mass then it can no longer carry out its proper function and it becomes a clique or a tribe.

In the final analysis the revolutionary minority can only be the servant of the oppressed. It has enormous responsibilities but no privileges.

Another feature of the revolutionary organisation's character is its permanence: there are times when it embodies and expresses a majority, which in turn tends to recognise itself in the active minority, but there are also periods of retreat when the revolutionary minority is no more than a ship in a storm. Then it must hold out so that it can quickly regain its audience - the masses - as soon as circumstances become favourable again. Even when isolated and cut off from its popular bases it acts according to the constants of the peoples desires, holding onto its programme despite all difficulties. It may even be led to certain isolated acts intended to awaken the masses (acts of violence against specific targets, insurrections). The difficulty then is to avoid cutting yourself off from reality and becoming a sect or an authoritarian, military-type leadership - to avoid wasting away while living on dreams or trying to act without being understood, driven on or followed by the mass of the people.

To prevent such degeneration the minority must maintain contact with events and with the milieu of the exploited - it must look out for the smallest reactions, the smallest revolts or achievements, study contemporary society in minute detail for its contradictions, weaknesses and possibilities for change. In his way, since the minority takes part in all forms of resistance and action which can range with events from demands to sabotage, from secret resistance o open revolt) it keeps the chance of guiding and developing even the smallest disturbances.

By striving to maintain, or acquire, a wide general vision of social events and their development, by adapting its tactics to the conditions of the day, by being on its guard - in this way the minority stays true to its mission and voids the risk of trailing after events, of becoming a mere spectacle outside of and stranger to the proletariat, of being bypassed by it. It (the minority) avoids confusing abstract reckonings and schemes for the true desires of the proletariat. It sticks to its programme but adapts it and corrects its errors in the light of events.

Whatever the circumstances the minority must never forget that its final aim is to disappear in becoming identical with the masses when they reach their highest level of consciousness in achieving the revolution.

(III) In What Forms Can The Revolutionary Vanguard Play Its Role
In practise there are two ways in which the revolutionary Organisation can influence the masses: there is work in established mass organisations and there is the work of direct propaganda. This second sort of activity takes place through papers and magazines, campaigns of demands and agitation, cultural debates, solidarity actions, demonstrations, conferences and public meetings. This direct work, which can sometimes be done through activities organised by others, is essential for gaining strength and for reaching certain sections of public opinion which are otherwise inaccessible. It's of the utmost importance in both workplace and community. But this sort of work doesn't pose the problem of knowing how 'direction' can avoid becoming 'dictatorship'.

It is different for activity inside established mass organisations. But first, what are these organisations?

They are generally of an economic character and based on the social solidarity of their members but can have multiple functions - defence (resistance, mutual aid), education (training for self-government) offence (demands on the tactical level, expropriation on the strategic) and administration. These organisations - unions, workers' fight committees and so on - even when taking on only one of these possible functions offer a direct opportunity for work with the masses.

And as well as the economic structures there exist many popular groupings through which the specific Organisation can make connections with the masses.

These are, for example, cultural leisure and welfare associations in which the specific Organisation may find energy, advice and experience. Here it may spread its influence by putting across its orientation and by fighting against the attempts of state and politicians to gain hegemony and control: fighting for the defence of these organisations so they can keep their own character and become centres of self government and revolutionary mobilisation, seeds of the new society (for elements of tomorrow's society already exist in today's).

Inside all these social and economic mass organisations influence must be exercised and strengthened not through a system of external decisions but through the active and coordinated presence of revolutionary anarchist militants within them - and in the posts of responsibility to which they're called according to their abilities and their attitude. It should be stressed though that militants should not let themselves get stuck in absorbing but purely administrative duties which leave them neither time nor opportunity to exercise a real influence. Political opponents often try to make prisoners of militant revolutionaries in this way.

This work of 'infiltration' as certain people call it should tend to transform the specific Organisation from a minority to a majority one - at least from the point of view of influence.

It also ought to avoid any monopolisation, which would end up having all tasks - even those of the specific Organisation - taken over by the mass organisation, or contrariwise would assign leadership of the mass associations only to members of the specific Organisation, brushing aside all other opinions. Here it must be made clear that the specific Organisation shou@d promote and defend not just a democratic and federalist structure and way of working in mass organisations but also an open structure - that is, one that makes entry easy for all element& that are not yet organised, so that the mass organisations can win over new social forces, become more representative and more able to give to the specific Organisation the closest possible contact with the people.

Internal Principles Of The Revolutionary Organisation Or Party
What we have said about the programme, and about the role of the vanguard and its types of activity, clearly shows that this vanguard must be organised. How?

Ideological Unity
It is obvious that in order to act you need a body of coherent ideas. Contradictions and hesitations prevent ideas getting through. On the other hand, the 'synthesis', or rather the conglomeration, of ill-matched ideas which only agree on what isn't of any real importance, can only cause confusion and can't stop itself being destroyed by the differences which are crucial.

As well as the reasons we found in our analysis of the problem of the programme, as well as deep ideological reasons concerning the nature of that programme, there are practical reasons which demand that a genuine Organisation be based on ideological unity.

The expression of this shared and unique ideology can be the product of a synthesis - but only in the sense of the search for a single expression of basically similar ideas with a common essential meaning.

Ideological unity is established by the programme which we looked at earlier (and will define later on): a libertarian communist programme which expresses the general desires of the exploited masses.

We should again make it clear the the specific Organisation is not a union or contractual understanding between individuals bringing their own artificial ideological convictions. It arises and develops as an organic, natural way because it corresponds to a real need. Its development rests on a certain number of ideas which aren't just created all of a piece but which neglect the deep desires of the exploited. So the Organisation has a class basis although it does accept people originally from the privileged classes and in some way rejected by them.

(2) Tactical Unity, A Collective Way Of Acting
Using the programme as its basis the Organisation works out a general tactical direction. This allows it to exploit all the advantages of structure: continuity and persistence in work, the abilities and strengths of some making up for the weaknesses of others, concentration of efforts, economy of strength, the ability to respond to needs and circumstances with the utmost effectiveness at any time. Tactical unity prevents everyone flying off in all directions, frees the movement of the disastrous effects of several sets of tactics and fighting each other.

It is here we get the problem of working out tactics. As far as ideology is concerned - the basic programme, the principles if you like - there is no problem: they are recognised by everyone in the Organisation. If there is a difference of opinion on essential matters there is a split and the newcomer to the Organisation accepts these basic principles, which can only be modified by unanimous agreement or at the cost of a separation.

It is quite another matter for questions of tactics. Unanimity may be sought but only up to the point where for it to come about would mean everyone agreeing by deciding nothing, leave an Organisation like an empty shell, drained of substance (and of use since the organisation's exact purpose is to co-ordinate forces towards a common goal). So, when all the arguments for the different proposals have been made, when discussion can not usefully continue, when similar opinions that agree in principle have merged and there still remains an irreducible opposition between the tactics proposed then the Organisation must find a way out. And there are only four possibilities:

(a) Decide nothing, so refuse to act, and then the Organisation loses all reason for existing.

(b) Accept the tactical differences and leave everyone to their own positions. The Organisation can allow this in certain cases on points that are not of crucial importance.

(c) Consult the Organisation through a vote which will allow a majority to break off, the minority accepted that it will give up its ideas as far as public activity is concerned but keeping the right to develop its argument inside the Organisation - judging that if its opinions accord with reality more closely than the majority view then they will eventually prevail by proof of events.

Sometimes the lack of objectivity of this procedure has been invoked, number not necessarily indicating truth, but it is the only one possible. It is in no way coercive as it only applies because the members of the Organisation accept it as a rule, and because the minority accept it as a necessity, which allows the tactical proposals accepted to be put to the test.

(d) When no agreement between majority and minority proves possible on a crucial issue which demands the Organisation take a position then there is, naturally and inevitably, a split.

In all cases the goal is tactical unity and if they did not try to achieve this then conferences would just be ineffective and profitless confrontations. That's why the first possible outcome (a) - to decide nothing - is to be rejected in every case and the second (b) - to allow several different tactics - can only be an exceptional choice.

Of course it is only meetings where the whole Organisation is represented which can decide the tactical line to be laid down (conferences, congresses, etc.).

(3) Collective Action And Discipline
Once these general tactics (or orientation) have been decided the problem of applying them comes up. It is obvious that if the Organisation has laid down a line of collective action it is so that the militant activities of every member and every group within the Organisation will conform to this line. In cases where a majority and a minority have drawn apart but the two sides have agreed to carry on working together, no-one can find themselves bullied because all have agreed to this way of acting beforehand and had a hand in the drawing up of the 'line'. This freely accepted discipline has nothing in common with military discipline and passive obedience to orders. There is no coercive machinery to impose a point of view that isn't accepted by the whole Organisation: there is simply respect for commitments freely made, as much for the minority as for the majority.

Of course the militants and the different levels of the Organisation can take initiatives but only in- so far as they do not contradict agreements and arrangements made by the proper bodies: that is, if these initiatives are in fact applications of collective decisions. But when particular activities involve the whole Organisation each member must consult the Organisation through liaison with its representative organs.

So, collective action and not action decided personally by separate militants.

Each member takes part in the activity of the whole Organisation in the same way as the Organisation is responsible for the revolutionary and political activity of each of its members, since they do not act in the political domain without consulting the Organisation.

(4) Federation Or Internal Democracy
As opposed to centralism, which is the blind submission of the masses to a centre, federalism both allows those centralisations which are necessary and permits the autonomous decision-making of each member and their control over the whole. It only involves the participants in what is shared by them.

When federalism brings together groups based on material interests it relies on an agreement and the basis for unity can sometimes be weak. This is the case in certain sectors of union activity. But in the revolutionary anarchist Organisation, where it's a question of a programme which represents the general desires of the masses, the basis for coming together (the principles, the programme) is more important than any differences and unity is very strong: rather than a pact or a contract here we should speak of a functional, organic, natural unity.

So federalism must not be understood as the right to show off your personal whims without considering the obligations to the Organisation that you've taken on.

It means the understanding reached between members and groups with a view to common work towards a shared goal - but a free understanding, a considered union.

Such an understanding implies on the one hand that those who share it fulfill the duties they've accepted completely and go along with collective decisions; it implies on the other that the coordinating and executive bodies be appointed and controlled by the whole Organisation at its assemblies and congresses and that their obligations and prerogatives be precisely established.

So it is on the following bases that an effective anarchist Organisation can exist:

- Ideological Unity
- Tactical Unity
- Collective Action and Discipline
- Federalism