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A vanguard party is a political party at the forefront of a mass action, movement, or revolution. The idea of a vanguard party was developed by Vladimir Lenin, most prominently in What is to be Done?, a political pamphlet first published in 1902.

Lenin's ideas about the proletarian revolutionary party differed from the ideas of Karl Marx. According to Marx, the working class, merely by following its own instincts, would gain rational insight into its plight as the downtrodden product of capitalism. Based on that insight, Marx held, the workers would bring about a revolution leading to their control over the means of production. Further, Marx predicted that the seizure by the proletariat of the means of production (land and factories) would lead to a tremendous increase in productive forces. Freedom from want, said Marx, would liberate men's minds. This liberation would usher in a cultural revolution and the formation of a new personality with unlimited creative possibilities.

As he surveyed the European milieu in the late 1890s, Lenin found several problems with the Marxism of his day. Contrary to what Marx had predicted, capitalism had strengthened itself over the last third of the 19th century. The working class in Western Europe had become more prosperous rather than impoverished. Hence, the workers and their unions, although continuing to press for better wages and working conditions, failed to develop the revolutionary class consciousness that Marx had expected. Lenin also argued that the division of labor in capitalist society prevented the emergence of proletarian class consciousness. Lenin wrote that because workers had to labor ten or twelve hours each workday in a factory, they had no time to learn the complexities of Marxist theory. Finally, in trying to effect revolution in autocratic Russia, Lenin also faced the problem of a regime that had outlawed almost all political activities. Although the autocracy could not enforce a ban on political ideas, until 1905—when the tsar agreed to the formation of a national duma—the tsarist police suppressed all groups seeking political change, including those with a democratic program.

Based on his observations, Lenin shifted the engine of proletarian revolution from the working class to a highly disciplined group of intellectuals. Lenin wrote in What Is to Be Done (1902) that the "history of all countries bears out the fact that through their own powers alone, the working class can develop only a trade-union consciousness." That is, history had demonstrated that the working class could engage in local, spontaneous rebellions to improve its position within the capitalist system but that it lacked the understanding of its interests necessary to overthrow that system. Pessimistic about the proletariat's ability to acquire class consciousness, Lenin argued that revolutionaries with a deep understanding of Marxism could educate and guide the workers towards revolution.

Lenin argued that the bearers of this consciousness were common intellectuals who made it their vocation to both conspire against the capitalist system, educate the public in revolutionary theory, and prepare the workers for the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat that would follow. Lenin also held that because Marx's thought was set forth in a sophisticated body of philosophical, economic, and social analysis, a high level of intellectual training was required to comprehend it. Hence, for Lenin, those who would educate the workers must devote all their energies and resources to understanding the range of Marx's thought as well as learning to avoid reactionary elements (such as Imperial Russia's state police). These men and women must be "professional" activists having no other duties that might interfere with their efforts to promote revolution.

Lenin's final alteration of Marx's thought arose in the course of his adaptation of Marxist ideology to the conditions of Russia's autocracy. Like other political organizations seeking change in Russia, Lenin's organization had to use conspiratorial methods and operate underground. Lenin argued for the necessity of confining membership in his organization to those who were professionally trained in the art of combating the secret police.

The ethos of Lenin's political thought was to subject first the party, then the working class, and finally the people to the politically conscious revolutionaries. Only actions informed by consciousness could promote revolution and the construction of socialism and communism in Russia.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union continued to regard itself as the institutionalization of Marxist-Leninist consciousness in the Soviet Union, and therein lay the justification for the controls it exercised over Soviet society. Article 6 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution refers to the party as the "leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organizations and public organizations." The party, precisely because it was the bearer of Marxist-Leninist ideology, determined the general development of society, directed domestic and foreign policy, and "imparts a planned, systematic, and theoretically substantiated character" to the struggle of the Soviet people for the victory of communism.

However, the exact role of the vanguard party as outlined by Lenin is disputed by the modern communist movement. Leon Trotsky, a contemporary of Lenin, further established the idea of a vanguard party through the creation of the Fourth International. Trotsky, a believer in the worldwide permanent revolution, thought that a vanguard party must be a global coalition from many nations if it were to be successful in its fight against capitalism. While the Fourth International faded from the public eye after Trotsky's death, various efforts have been made to revive it, or some sort of resembling international vanguard party.

See also

References

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. "A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former).". http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/cshome.html. Retrieved 2006-12-04.  

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