The Twilight of Vanguardism

David Graber looks at how intellectual vanguardist attitudes have continued into an age when revolutionary vanguardism is meant to be a thing of the past.

Submitted by Malva on September 16, 2011

Revolutionary thinkers have been saying that the age of vanguardism is
over for most of a century now. Outside of a handful of tiny sectarian
groups, it's almost impossible to find a radical intellectuals seriously
believe that their role should be to determine the correct historical
analysis of the world situation, so as to lead the masses along in the
one true revolutionary direction. But (rather like the idea of progress
itself, to which it's obviously connected), it seems much easier to
renounce the principle than to shake the accompanying habits of thought.
Vanguardist, even, sectarian attitudes have become deeply ingrained in
academic radicalism it's hard to say what it would mean to think outside

The depth of the problem first really struck me when I first became
acquainted with the consensus modes of decision-making employed in North
American anarchist and anarchist-inspired political movements, which, in
turn, bore a lot of similarities to the style of political
decision-making current where I had done my anthropological fieldwork in
rural Madagascar. There's enormous variation among different styles and
forms of consensus but one thing almost all the North American variants
have in common is that they are organized in conscious opposition to the
style of organization and, especially, of debate typical of the
classical sectarian Marxist group. Where the latter are invariably
organized around some Master Theoretician, who offers a comprehensive
analysis of the world situation and, often, of human history as a whole,
but very little theoretical reflection on more immediate questions of
organization and practice, anarchist-inspired groups tend to operate on
the assumption that no one could, or probably should, ever convert
another person completely to one's own point of view, that
decision-making structures are ways of managing diversity, and
therefore, that one should concentrate instead on maintaining
egalitarian process and considering immediate questions of action in the
present. One of the fundamental principles of political debate, for
instance, is that one is obliged to give other participants the benefit
of the doubt for honesty and good intentions, whatever else one might
think of their arguments. In part too this emerges from the style of
debate consensus decision-making encourages: where voting encourages one
to reduce one's opponents positions to a hostile caricature, or whatever
it takes to defeat them, a consensus process is built on a principle of
compromise and creativity where one is constantly changing proposals
around until one can come up with something everyone can at least live
with; therefore, the incentive is always to put the best possible
construction on other's arguments.

All this struck home to me because it brought home to me just how much
ordinary intellectual practice--the kind of thing I was trained to do at
the University of Chicago, for example--really does resemble sectarian
modes of debate. One of the things which had most disturbed me about my
training there was precisely the way we were encouraged to read other
theorists' arguments: that if there were two ways to read a sentence,
one of which assumed the author had at least a smidgen of common sense
and the other that he was a complete idiot, the tendency was always to
chose the latter. I had sometimes wondered how this could be reconciled
with an idea that intellectual practice was, on some ultimate level, a
common enterprise in pursuit of truth. The same goes for other
intellectual habits: for example, that of carefully assembling lists of
different "ways to be wrong" (usually ending in "ism": i.e.,
subjectivism, empiricism, all much like their sectarian parallels:
reformism, left deviationism, hegemonism...) and being willing to listen
to points of view differing from one's own only so long as it took to
figure out which variety of wrongness to plug them into. Combine this
with the tendency to treat (often minor) intellectual differences not
only as tokens of belonging to some imagined "ism" but as profound moral
flaws, on the same level as racism or imperialism (and often in fact
partaking of them) then one has an almost exact reproduction of style of
intellectual debate typical of the most ridiculous vanguardist sects.

I still believe that the growing prevalence of these new, and to my mind
far healthier, modes of discourse among activists will have its effects
on the academy but it's hard to deny that so far, the change has been
very slow in coming.


One might argue this is because anarchism itself has made such small
inroads into the academy. As a political philosophy, anarchism is going
through veritable explosion in recent years. Anarchist or
anarchist-inspired movements are growing everywhere; anarchist
principles--autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual
aid, direct democracy--have become the basis for organizing within the
globalization movement and beyond. As Barbara Epstein has recently
pointed out, at least in Europe and the Americas, it has by now largely
taken the place Marxism had in the social movements of the '60s: the
core revolutionary ideology, it is the source of ideas and inspiration;
even those who do not consider themselves anarchists feel they have to
define themselves in relation to it. Yet this has found almost no
reflection in academic discourse. Most academics seem to have only the
vaguest idea what anarchism is even about; or dismiss it with the
crudest stereotypes ("anarchist organization! but isn't that a
contradiction in terms?") In the United States--and I don't think is all
that different elsewhere--there are thousands of academic Marxists of
one sort or another, but hardly anyone who is willing to openly call
herself an anarchist.

I don't think this is just because the academy is behind the times.
Marxism has always had an affinity with the academy that anarchism never
will. It was, after all was invented by a Ph.D.; and there's always been
something about its spirit which fits that of the academy. Anarchism on
the other hand was never really invented by anyone. True, historians
usually treat it as if it were, constructing the history of anarchism as
if it's basically a creature identical in its nature to Marxism: it was
created by specific 19th century thinkers, perhaps Godwin or Stirner,
but definitely Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, it inspired working-class
organizations, became enmeshed in political struggles... But in fact the
analogy is rather strained. First of all, the 19th century generally
credited with inventing anarchism didn't think of themselves as having
invented anything particularly new. The basic principles of
anarchism--self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid--are as
old as humanity Similarly, the rejection of the state and of all forms
of structural violence, inequality, or domination (anarchism literally
means "without rulers"), even the assumption that all these forms are
somehow related and reinforce each other, was hardly some startlingly
new 19th century doctrine. One can find evidence of people making
similar arguments throughout history, despite the fact there is every
reason to believe that such opinions were the ones least likely to be
written down. We are talking less about a body of theory than about an
attitude, or perhaps a faith: a rejection of certain types of social
relation, a confidence that certain others are a much better ones on
which to build a decent or humane society, a faith that it would be
possible to do so.

One need only compare the historical schools of Marxism, and anarchism,
then, to see we are dealing with a fundamentally different sort of
thing. Marxist schools have authors. Just as Marxism sprang from the
mind of Marx, so we have Leninists, Maoists, Trotksyites, Gramscians,
Althusserians... Note how the list starts with heads of state and grades
almost seamlessly into French professors. Pierre Bourdieu once noted
that, if the academic field is a game in which scholars strive for
dominance, then you know you have won when other scholars start
wondering how to make an adjective out of your name. It is, presumably,
to preserve the possibility of winning the game that intellectuals
insist, in discussing each other, on continuing to employ just the sort
of Great Man theories of history they would scoff at in discussing just
about anything else: Foucault's ideas, like Trotsky's, are never treated
as primarily the products of a certain intellectual milieu, as something
that emerging from endless conversations and arguments in cafes,
classrooms, bedrooms, barber shops involving thousands of people inside
and outside the academy (or Party), but always, as if they emerged from
a single man's genius. It's not quite either that Marxist politics
organized itself like an academic discipline or become a model for how
radical intellectuals, or increasingly, all intellectuals, treated one
another; rather, the two developed somewhat in tandem.

Schools of anarchism, in contrast, emerge from some kind of
organizational principle or form of practice: Anarcho-Syndicalists and
Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists and Platformists, Cooperativists,
Individualists, and so on. (Significantly, those few Marxist tendencies
which are not named after individuals, like Autonomism or Council
Communism, are themselves the closest to anarchism.) Anarchists are
distinguished by what they do, and how they organize themselves to go
about doing it. And indeed this has always been what anarchists have
spent most of their time thinking and arguing about. They have never
been much interested in the kinds of broad strategic or philosophical
questions that preoccupy Marxists such as Are the peasants a potentially
revolutionary class? (anarchists consider this something for the
peasants to decide) or what is the nature of the commodity form? Rather,
they tend to argue about what is the truly democratic way to go about a
meeting, at what point organization stops being empowering people and
starts squelching individual freedom. Is "leadership" necessarily a bad
thing? Or, alternately, about the ethics of opposing power: What is
direct action? Should one condemn someone who assassinates a head of
state? When is it okay to break a window?

One might sum it up like this:

1. Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about
revolutionary strategy.

2. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary

Now, this does imply there's a lot of potential complementary between
the two (and indeed there has been: even Mikhail Bakunin, for all his
endless battles with Marx over practical questions, also personally
translated Marx's Capital into Russian.) One could easily imagine a
systematic division of labor in which Marxists critique the political
economy, but stay out of organizing, and Anarchists handle the
day-to-day organizing, but defer to the Marxists on questions of
abstract theory; i.e., in which the Marxists explain why the economic
crash in Argentina occurred and the anarchists deal with what to do
about it. (I also should point out that I am aware I am being a bit
hypocritical here by indulging in some of the same sort of sectarian
reasoning I'm otherwise critiquing: there are schools of Marxism which
are far more open-minded and tolerant, and democratically organized,
there are anarchist groups which are insanely sectarian; Bakunin himself
was hardly a model for democracy by any standards, etc. etc. etc.). But
it also makes it easier to understand why there are so few anarchists in
the academy. It's not just that anarchism does not lend itself to high
theory. It's that it is primarily an ethics of practice; and it insists,
before anything else, that one's means most be consonant with one's
ends; one cannot create freedom through authoritarian means; that as
much as possible, one must embody the society one wishes to create. This
does not square very well with operating within Universities that still
have an essentially Medieval social structure, presenting papers at
conferences in expensive hotels, and doing intellectual battle in
language no one who hasn't spent at least two or three years in grad
school would ever hope to be able to understand. At the very least,
then, it would tend to get one in trouble.

All this does not, of course, mean that anarchist theory is
impossible--though it does suggest that a single Anarchist High Theory
in the style typical of university radicalism might be rather a
contradiction in terms. One could imagine a body of theory that presumes
and indeed values a diversity of sometimes incommensurable perspectives
in much the same way that anarchist decision-making process does, but
which nonetheless organizes them around an presumption of shared
commitments. But clearly, it would also have to self-consciously reject
any trace of vanguardism: which leads to the question the role of
revolution intellectuals is not to form an elite that can arrive at the
correct strategic analyses and then lead the masses to follow, what
precisely is it? This is an area where I think anthropology is
particularly well positioned to help. And not only because most actual,
self-governing communities, non-market economies, and other radical
alternatives have been mainly studied by anthropologists; also, because
the practice of ethnography provides at least something of a model, an
incipient model, of how non-vanguardist revolutionary intellectual
practice might work. Ethnography is about teasing out the hidden
symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logics that underly certain types of
social action; the way people's habits and actions makes sense in ways
that they are not themselves completely aware of. One obvious role for a
radical intellectual is precisely that: the first thing we need to do is
to look at those who are creating viable alternatives on the group, and
try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are
(already) doing.


Untwining social theory from vanguardist habits might seem a
particularly difficult task because historically, modern social theory
and the idea of the vanguard were born more or less together. On the
other hand, so was the idea of an artistic avant garde ("avant garde" is
in fact simply the French word for vanguard), and the relation between
the three might itself suggest some unexpected possibilities.

The term avant garde was actually coined by Henri de Saint-Simon, the
product of a series of essays he wrote at the very end of his life. Like
his onetime secretary and disciple (and later bitter rival Auguste
Comte), Saint-Simon was writing in the wake of the French revolution and
essentially, were asking what had gone wrong: why the transition from a
medieval, feudal Catholic society to a modern, industrial democratic one
seemed to be creating such enormous violence and social dislocation. The
problem he concluded was that modern society lacked any force of
ideological cohesion that could play the same role as the Medieval
church, which gave everyone the sense of having a meaningful place in
the overall social order. Towards the end of their lives each actually
ended up creating his own religion: Saint-Simon's called his the "New
Christianity", Comte, the "New Catholicism". In the first, artists were
to play the role of the ultimate spiritual leaders; in an imaginary
dialogue with a scientist, he has an artist explaining that in their
role of imagining possible futures and inspiring the public, they can
play the role of an "avant garde", a "truly priestly function" as he
puts it; in his ideal future, artists would hatch the ideas which they
would then pass on to the scientists and industrialists to put into
effect. Saint-Simon was also perhaps the first to conceive the notion of
the withering away of the state: once it had become clear that the
authorities were operating for the good of the public, one would no more
need force to compel the public to heed their advice than one needed it
to compel patients to take the advice of their doctors. Government would
pass away into at most some minor police functions.

Comte, of course, is most famous as the founder of sociology; he
invented the term to describe what he saw as the master-discipline which
could both understand and direct society. He ended up taking a
different, far more authoritarian approach: ultimately proposing the
regulation and control of almost all aspects of human life according to
scientific principles, with the role of high priests (effectively, the
vanguard, though he did not actually call them this) in his New
Catholicism being played by the sociologists themselves.

It's a particularly fascinating opposition because in the early
twentieth century, the positions were effectively reversed. Instead of
the left-wing Saint-Simonians looking to artists for leadership, while
the right-wing Comtians fancied themselves scientists, we had the
fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini who imagined themselves as
great artists inspiring the masses, and sculpting society according to
their grandiose imaginings, and the Marxist vanguard which claimed the
role of scientists.

At any rate the Saint Simonians at any rate actively sought to recruit
artists for their various ventures, salons, and utopian communities;
though they quickly ran into difficulties because so many within "avant
garde" artistic circles preferred the more anarchistic Fourierists, and
later, one or another branch of outright anarchists. Actually, the
number of 19th century artists with anarchist sympathies is quite
staggering, ranging from Pissaro to Tolstoy or Oscar Wilde, not to
mention almost all early 20th century artists who later became
Communists, from Malevich to Picasso. Rather than a political vanguard
leading the way to a future society, radical artists almost invariably
saw themselves as exploring new and less alienated modes of life. The
really significant development in the 19th century was less to idea of a
vanguard than that of Bohemia (a term first coined by Balzac in 1838):
marginal communities living in more or less voluntary poverty, seeing
themselves as dedicated to the pursuit of creative, unalienated forms of
experience, united by a profound hatred of bourgeois life and everything
it stood for. Ideologically, they were about equally likely to be
proponents of "art for art's sake" or social revolutionaries.
Contemporary theorists are actually quite divided over how to evaluate
their larger significance. Pierre Bourdieu for example insisted that the
promulgation of the idea of "art for art's sake", far from being
depoliticizing, should be considered a significant accomplishment, as
was any which managed to establish the autonomy of one particular field
of human endeavor from the logic of the market. Colin Campbell on the
other hand argues that insofar as bohemians actually were an avant
garde, they were really the vanguard of the market itself, or more
precisely, of consumerism: their actual social function, much though
they would have loathed to admit it, was to explore new forms of
pleasure or aesthetic territory which could be commoditized in the next
generation. (One might call this the Tom Franks version of history.)
Campbell also echoes common wisdom that bohemia was almost exclusively
inhabited by the children of the bourgeoisie, who had--temporarily, at
least--rejecting their families' money and privilege; and who, if they
did not die young of dissipation, were likely to end up back on the
board of father's company. This is a claim that has been repeated so
often about activists and revolutionaries over the years that it makes
me, at least, immediately wary: in fact, I strongly suspect that
bohemian circles emerged from the same sort of social conjuncture as
most current activist circles, and historically, most vanguardist
revolutionary parties as well: a kind of meeting between certain
elements of (intentionally) downwardly mobile professional classes, in
broad rejection of bourgeois values, and upwardly mobile children of the
working class. Though such suspicions can only be confirmed by
historical investigation.

In the 19th century idea of the political vanguard was used very widely
and very loosely for anyone seen as exploring the path to a future, free
society. Radical newspapers for example often called themselves "the
Avant Garde". It was Marx though who began to significantly change the
idea by introducing the notion that the proletariat were the true
revolutionary class--he didn't actually use the term "vanguard" in his
own writing--because they were the one that was the most oppressed, or
as he put it "negated" by capitalism, and therefore had the least to
lose by its abolition. In doing so, he ruled out the possibilities that
less alienated enclaves, whether of artists or the sort of artisans and
independent producers who tended to form the backbone of anarchism, had
anything significant to offer. The results we all know. The idea of a
vanguard party to dedicated to both organizing and providing an
intellectual project for that most-oppressed class chosen as the agent
of history, but also, actually sparking the revolution through their
willingness to employ violence, was first outlined by Lenin in 1902 in
What Is to Be Done?; it has echoed endlessly, to the point where the SDS
in the late '60s could end up locked in furious debates over whether the
Black Panther Party should be considered the vanguard of The Movement as
the leaders of its most oppressed element. All this in turn had a
curious effect on the artistic avant garde who increasingly started to
organize themselves like vanguard parties, beginning with the Dadaists,
Futurists, publishing their own manifestos, communiqu�s, purging one
another, and otherwise making themselves (sometimes quite intentional)
parodies of revolutionary sects. (Note however that these groups always
defined themselves, like anarchists, by a certain form of practice
rather than after some heroic founder.) The ultimate fusion came with
the Surrealists and then finally the Situationist International, which
on the one hand was the most systematic in trying to develop a theory of
revolutionary action according to the spirit of Bohemia, thinking about
what it might actually mean to destroy the boundaries between art and
life, but at the same time, in its own internal organization, displayed
a kind of insane sectarianism full of so many splits, purges, and bitter
denunciations that Guy Debord finally remarked that the only logical
conclusion was for the International to be finally reduced to two
members, one of whom would purge the other and then commit suicide.
(Which is actually not too far from what actually ended up happening.)


The historical relations between political and artistic avant gardes
have been explored at length by others. For me though the really
intriguing questions is: why is it that artists have so often been so
drawn to revolutionary politics to begin with? Because it does seem to
be the case that, even in times and places when there is next to no
other constituency for revolutionary change, the one place on is most
likely to find one is among artists, authors, and musicians; even more
so, in fact, that among professional intellectuals. It seems to me the
answer must have something to do with alienation. There would appear to
be a direct link between the experience of first imagining things and
then bringing them into being (individually or collectively)--that is,
the experience of certain forms of unalienated production--and the
ability to imagine social alternatives; particularly, the possibility of
a society itself premised on less alienated forms of creativity. Which
would allow us to see the historical shift between seeing the vanguard
as the relatively unalienated artists (or perhaps intellectuals) to
seeing them as the representatives of the "most oppressed" in a new
light. In fact, I would suggest, revolutionary coalitions always tend to
consist of an alliance between a society's least alienated and its most
oppressed. And this is less elitist a formulation than it might sound,
because it also seems to be the case that actual revolutions tend to
occur when these two categories come to overlap. That would at any rate
explain why it almost always seems to be peasants and craftspeople - or
alternately, newly proletarianized former peasants and craftspeople -
who actually rise up and overthrow capitalist regimes, and not those
inured to generations of wage labor. Finally, I suspect this would also
help explain the extraordinary importance of indigenous people's
struggles in that planetary uprising usually referred to as the
"anti-globalization" movement: such people tend to be simultaneously the
very least alienated and most oppressed people on earth, and once it is
technologically possible to include them in revolutionary coalitions, it
is almost inevitable that they should take a leading role.

The role of indigenous peoples in turn leads us back to the role of
ethnography as a possible model for the would-be non-vanguardist
revolutionary intellectual--as well as some of its potential pitfalls.
Obviously what I am proposing would only work if it was, ultimately, a
form of auto-ethnography, combined, perhaps, with a certain utopian
extrapolation: a matter of teasing out the tacit logic or principles
underlying certain forms of radical practice, and then, not only
offering the analysis back to those communities, but using them to
formulate new visions ("if one applied the same principles as you are
applying to political organization to economics, might it not look
something like this?"...) Here too there are suggestive parallels in the
history of radical artistic movements, which became movements precisely
as they became their own critics (and of course the idea of
self-criticism took on a very different, and more ominous, tone within
Marxist politics); there are also intellectuals already trying to do
precisely this sort of auto-ethnographic work. But I say all this not so
much to provide models as to open up a field for discussion, first of
all, by emphasizing that even the notion of vanguardism itself far more
rich in its history, and full of alternative possibilities, than most of
us would ever be given to expect.

Note: This essay was delivered as a keynote address during the "History
Matters: Social Movements Past, Present, and Future" conference at the
New School for Social Research
( for more information)

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