[For a while I subscribed to the "Progressive Economists News List (PEN-L) on the Internet, and occasionally posted a thing or two myself there. One discussion centered on the issue of "experts", and I posted an item which connected up that topic with the mass line. Another participant, Justin Schwartz, posted a critical response and took the opportunity to also rail against the idea of a "Vanguard Party" (something I hadn't mentioned, though someone else had). This is my reply of July 30, 2002, which attempts to clarify what vanguard parties really are. —Scott H.]
>> It is a popular bourgeois myth that there is no place for expertise in
[Justin Schwartz writes:]
> I'm one of those bourgeois liberals—and I mean this dead seriously, I am a
Well, I'm glad we can agree on one thing—you are indeed a bourgeois liberal. Why you hang out on pen-l is still a mystery to me, however. I think very few people here regard themselves as "bourgeois liberals". What is your program—to "wise up" the left??
This business about a "vanguard party" needs to be clarified. By the way, you forgot to precede the term with "self-proclaimed", as is usually done (and which I believe you do yourself in another recent posting). And that is really the crux of the matter, since such proclamations almost always prove the exact opposite of what they are meant to prove. I.e., real vanguards don't need to proclaim the fact—they demonstrate it.
For us Marxists, politics is a matter of class struggle. Serious political parties exist in order to advance the interests of particular classes, and in order to lead their class in advancing its interests. Such parties are thus usually made up of and led by those with a deeper understanding of what is going on in society, and how it affects the interests of their class. (I.e., relative "experts".) As such, any political party which actually leads its class and advances its interests is in reality that part of the class which is "out in front" in representing its interests. In other words, it is a "vanguard". That is all that the word 'vanguard' was meant to mean—those who are out in front in leading the rest in a struggle for their collective class interests.
Thus, in the U.S., there are two vanguard parties of the bourgeoisie, the Democrats and the Republicans. Sometimes one is the primary vanguard of the American bourgeoisie, sometimes the other. Most of the time they split the duties, and—despite surface appearances—mostly cooperate in their vanguard activities. (When basic class issues arise there is general "bipartisan" agreement.) There are two bourgeois vanguards in the U.S. because there are (or at least used to be) some significant secondary differences within the bourgeoisie, about where their own interests lie, and about whether to take a hard line against the masses (the Republicans), or focus more on trying to appease and fool them (the Democrats).
The working class has never had much of a vanguard party in the U.S., that is, a party which has actually led significant parts of the proletariat in struggling for its own interests. During some periods (e.g. the 1930s) the old CPUSA did make some noticeable progress toward becoming such a party. None of today's political sects on the left (including the present CPUSA and the RCPUSA) shows any sign of making any progress toward becoming a real vanguard of the working class. They all seem to be quite hopeless, stuck in dogmatism, and wallowing in fantasies about their own "bright prospects".
But does there need to be such a party which can really lead the working class and the poor in this country? A party which can thus really advance the interests of the workers and the masses against their class enemies? And since advancing their long-term most fundamental interests means overthrowing capitalism, a party which can lead the people in a revolutionary direction? Of course there does. Every country needs such a party. And when such a party has come into being here, and is actually leading a major part of the masses in struggle, it will in fact be a vanguard party—though it will not be necessary to proclaim this.
Those who pooh-pooh "vanguard parties" are correct to do so if they are simply talking about the minuscule sects that currently proclaim themselves as "the real vanguard", and such. But these "pooh-poohers" are siding with the enemy against the people to the extent that they oppose the working class and the masses having their own party to advance their collective interests. Because there is this ambiguity, it is wrong to simply attack the idea of a vanguard party, even though the current dogmatic sects do tend to make the idea of a vanguard seem quite ridiculous.
A new revolutionary political party for the working class and masses in this country is needed just because none of the present sects seem to be able to demonstrate to the masses that they are actually working in the people's interests. They don't know how to go about it (because they are ignorant of the mass line and so forth).
But of course any new revolutionary party will itself have to start small. At first it will inevitably appear to many to be just another sect. But the difference is that instead of simply proclaiming itself as "the vanguard" it will actually use the already-discovered methods which might allow it to eventually become a serious vanguard. It may be that at first such a group will not even call itself a "party". And of necessity it will have to avoid the almost compulsive sectarianism and even cultism that "leftist" groups are prone to. But if the working class in this country, and the poor and other allies of the working class, are ever to have their own party, we must start somewhere.
It is also true that objective conditions for a mass revolutionary party do not exist in the U.S. at present. Actually, they have never existed here up to now, and it will be a long time until they do. This is because of the embourgeoisment of a large section of the proletariat itself, and the spoils of imperialism. That is why we can't possibly have a revolution in this country any time soon. But the fact remains that a party which actually represents both the short-term and long-term interests of the masses can exist here now, and if it functions properly, and uses the mass line, it will grow in influence. For now, that is all that our class can do. But imperialism will not last forever.
Of course I don't expect that any of this will make sense to you, Justin, because—as you say—you are a bourgeois liberal. But as long as bourgeois liberals are polluting other people's minds, it is necessary to combat their bourgeois views.