Peter Camejo, 1984

Problems of vanguardism
In defense of Leninism

Source: North Star Network discussion article, October 1, 1984
Mark-up, proofreading: Steve Painter


During the youth radicalization of the late 1960s an entire generation in the United States was transformed politically. Mass currents of opinion critical of imperialism, racism, sexism and other aspects of capitalism were generated, often expressed in powerful single-issue movements. Among the most committed, tens of thousands became interested in the world socialist movement.

The youth of the 1960s and early 1970s sought models and found the Soviet Union wanting. They were far more attracted to the ultraleft rhetoric of Maoism or the “purity” of “Trotskyist” formations. This attraction was in part due to the natural ultraleft romanticism of a generational radicalization based largely on campuses. The ultraleftism of the 1960s was not born of defeat and despair, which have characterized most ultraleft currents in the past. The energy ofthe 1960s and 1970s is, in fact, far from exhausted. The impact of this is reflected in every progressive mass struggle in the United States today.

But the road forward proved to be far more difficult than the simplistic imitation of other revolutionary experiences seemed to promise. The generation of the sixties failed to consolidate a new revolutionary vanguard or movement in the United States. This is the only honest conclusion that can be drawn. Maoism quickly proved to be quite different from its followers’ expectations. The Mao-Nixon accord in 1971 and China’s subsequent rightist policies broke the infatuation with Maoism. Maoist and other efforts to proselytize North American industrial workers took on an infantile ultraleftism whose practice and rhetoric lacked connection to the America of the 1970s. These attempts led to failure in spite of some temporary and partial exceptions.

Gradually a dichotomy has developed between the sectarianism of formations claiming to be Leninist vanguards and mass struggles. The remnants of these vanguard-type formations have been caught in a methodology that guarantees their self-isolation. Others, repelled, have ended up questioning the very need for a revolutionary vanguard, Leninism, or even a socialist future for the United States.

Many chose to remain active solely in issue-oriented formations, surrounded by the pressures of living in a country with a powerful and solidly institutionalized imperialist ruling class. Many of those seeking refuge in single-issue work inevitably became subject to rightward pressures. The growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is one organizational expression of this shift.

The dichotomy between choosing dogmatic–sectarian formations or rightist–opportunist politics has widened. Undercutting this process has been the influence stemming from revolutionary victories in Central America and the consistent revolutionary policies and idealism of the Cubans and others like them.

A great deal of rethinking has been going on in the left in the United States in recent years. One of the most promising developments has been the growth of solidarity with Central America as well as the massive impact of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition electoral campaign. The rejection of sectarianism by new forces is often associated with prejudices and often combined with the feeling that while revolutions are possible in the Third World, there is no hope for revolutionary changes within the advanced industrial countries, at least not in the United States. Such a view can lead activists to look away from the broad masses of working people for political solutions. Instead, a logic of despair can influence one to give up one’s own people. This invariably leads one to look for allies within the ruling class and function under the illusion that maybe some wing of the ruling class remains historically progressive.

The sectarianism and ultraleftism of many of the formations that comprise our left only help reinforce the rightist danger. In this document we wish to argue that what is wrong with the method of the sectarians has nothing to do with Leninism. We do so with the goal of winning the newer generation to the need to build a revolutionary movement in our own country, but with methods diametrically opposite to those promoted by the sectarians. In furthering this task a better understanding of the errors of the sectarians can only help create interest in a genuine revolutionary movement.


Organizations considering themselves "the vanguard" in the United States, as a whole, have an ultraleft and dogmatic interpretation of Leninism. In their view, Lenin’s concept of a proletarian vanguard party has been reduced to the idea that all that is needed is a “correct program” and a democratic-centralist organization. After all, isn’t that what Lenin did? He drafted a program and assembled a cadre around that program. What is missing in such an over-simplified concept of Leninism, however, is the living class struggle.


The starting point of Lenin’s conception of organization was the class struggle itself. Lenin saw that, as struggles developed, there spontaneously appeared dedicated and committed leaders among those suffering exploitation and oppression. Out of these more politically advanced elements he sought to mold a genuine vanguard that could unify and lead in action the working class, along with other social strata suffering oppression.

Lenin opposed building a party of all workers. He saw that such a formation would have a rather confused political orientation. Instead, he argued for building a party based on the more advanced leaders and activists generated by the ongoing struggles.

By 1905, Lenin characterized the class struggle in Russia as the world’s most advanced revolutionary mass movement ever. He set as his task the consolidation of a revolutionary vanguard, unified around a class-struggle orientation. Lenin functioned within the framework of the mass movement unfolding in Europe at that time, the Second International and its affiliated socialist parties.

To Lenin, both the party’s program and the organisation of the revolutionary vanguard were directly tied to involvement in the mass movement. Lenin also emphasized that both programmatic and organizational norms evolve with circumstances in the class struggle.

Those who separate Lenin’s conception of a vanguard from its roots in mass work turn Leninism into sect building based on abstract ideology. No “vanguard” in the United States is currently leading any mass movement. In most cases, our “vanguards” don’t even participate in them.

Yet they like to insist that they have “the” program and a disciplined cadre that, taken together, qualify them for recognition as “the” Leninist vanguard or, at least, the “embryo of the vanguard”.


Organizations, some having been around for 50 or 100 years, that claim to have “the” program are, by definition, wrong. For those seeking to create a vanguard formation in the United States, developing an effective program and strategy must involve, first, recognizing the existence of mass struggles and, second, directly participating in them. Those who deduce their program from intellectual study and assemble cadre in order to wait and be ready when the moment arrives make an idealist error. They reject the materialist starting point of Marxism.

For sectarians, the ideas (program) come first, divorced from existing struggles. Their methods lead to the emergence of dogmatic sects whose loyalty is to their own ideology. In this manner, Marxism is reduced to an intellectual exercise involving debates and polemics to prove the “correctness” of one theory over and against another, instead of being a science to promote living struggles.

The first loyalty of revolutionaries must always be tied to the living struggles. Lenin insisted that genuine discipline was impossible without directly leading mass revolutionary struggles, and he predicted that those who pretend to develop revolutionary discipline while remaining isolated would end up phrase-mongering and clowning. Anyone acquainted with the US left knows that we have sufficient quantities of both.

The misconception that having the “correct program” will ultimately assure victory, regardless of one’s direct participation in struggle, has led to a series of policies and methods that condemn political formations to a sectarian existence. Let us look briefly at a few examples.


A trademark of sectarians is their manner of “intervention”. Some members of a group will be assigned to intervene among formations attempting to reach people on one issue or another. The real goal of these interventions is the cannibalization of movements and organizations in order to gain one more adherent to the sect. If the sect suddenly decides that the issue or group is no longer conducive to sect-building, its members will disappear as suddenly as they appeared. Sects approach struggles in the real world as though they were visitors from another planet checking out an alien environment.


Small groups of fewer than 3000 members, often with fewer than 1000, will write great polemics attacking each other or some minority within their own group to defend their “program”. They regard this practice as “being Leninist”. After all, didn’t Lenin fight against all forms of obfuscation and attempts to revise or water down a Marxist program?

Yes, of course, Lenin polemicized. However, he focused his efforts against currents directly leading, or rather misleading, mass movements or currents whose views were affecting the genuine vanguards of those mass struggles. Lenin didn’t waste time on polemics with groups that had no relationship to the living events of the day.

Most polemics in the US left today involve either a discussion of activities being carried out by forces on some other continent or about some historical event. For instance, a battle will rage in the Middle East and, as with all mass struggles, the forces involved and the issues posed will be quite complex. What then occurs among our home-grown sectarians is an orgy of commentary. Each group comments on the events in the real world with the goal of confirming their particular views. They patiently point out the errors of those actually struggling in the Middle East and kindly offer their moral solidarity. This is usually climaxed with a headline saying something like “US OUT” or some similar phrase that terminates their obligation to the real struggle.

The opening fray of comments soon leads to documents and pamphlets or even entire books. These are aimed to expose the commentary of other groups inside the United States or, at times, minorities from within their own groups. Of course, neither these critics nor the condemned are in any way involved in the struggles they are debating. Such debates are considered a Leninist involvement in politics. In actuality, they are a form of abstention from participation in real living struggles.


Another key difference between the methods of the US sects and those of Lenin (or the Central American revolutionaries) centers on the question of which political points demarcate revolutionary and reformist currents.

In the United States, which is the center of world imperialism, points of demarcation between revolutionary and reformist currents will necessarily involve many factors, both of a national and an international character. The process through which a real ideological struggle unfolds, however, must be directly related to the living class struggle. Differences can only be resolved if we use a non-sectarian method of debate and discussion, one that bases points of demarcation on real struggles.

Undoubtedly, the leadership created by mass struggles will be a collective leaderhip, reflecting the complexities of the US.class struggle and the various exploited and oppressed layers. A genuine “correct program” — that is, one that is derived from reality — will develop through the conflict of ideas, permanently adjusted through experience. If an atmosphere tolerant of differences and debate does not exist among revolutionaries, they will find it difficult to respond to changing conditions or to correct errors. We must also have the patience and humility to recognize that people may change their views over time, as many of us have done.

We are talking here not about intellectual exercises called debates or faction fights but rather of the constructive clash of ideas within a revolutionary framework. Such debates are impossible under the present dogmatic–sectarian misconceptions of Leninism incorporated in such claims as: “We represent the continuity of the movement; therefore, we have the correct program.”

US revolutionaries need norms that permit the kind of discussions Lenin’s party held. Those debates rarely led to splits or divisions. In fact, Lenin, the central leader of the revolutionary current, was on occasion voted down. This is something quite inconceivable for the central leadership ofany ofour many US “vanguards”.

The class analysis of differences

The intolerance of existing US “vanguards” towards differences inside their own ranks flows directly from their idealist errors regarding the relationship between program and organization on the one hand and mass struggles on the other.

The belief that one has the “correct program” leads straight to the corollary that political differences must reflect the pressures of a different class. After all, a “correct program” can only reflect the interests of the proletariat and, since there is only one proletariat and one program, different views must inevitably be rooted in some other class.

Since the claims of sectarian to the title of “the vanguard” and “the Marxist-Leninist party” are synonymous with their having the “correct program” as well as “historical continuity with Marx and Lenin”, they cannot for long tolerate other groups or currents that hold different positions on major questions, or even different interpretations of history.

When groups that have little contact with mass struggles develop differences that cannot possibly be tested in practice, the differences quickly escalate into a challenge to the whole premise of the existing “vanguard” formation. Since they mechanically see questions as interrelated, even small differences become crucial in their eyes.

What usually follows is a “class analysis” of the views of one’s “opponents”, combined with a “class analysis” of the opponent as a person of a certain social grouping. In every case, it is “discovered” that the opponent represents an “alien class pressure”, coming from the petty bourgeoisie. The opponent is thus outside the framework of the working class movement, and can be treated accordingly.

What is the result? More often than not, two “vanguards” each calling the other “petty bourgeois”, emerge. As time passes and splits grow in number, we encounter an ever-increasing number of “vanguards”, each with its own particular explanation of history and events.

One party, one class

One argument that is often heard in the polemics of sectarians is that only one party can truly represent the working class. In Russia, it was the Bolsheviks. All other Russian parties turned out to reflect alien class forces.

Thus, our US “vanguards” conclude, only one organization can represent the US working class.

Yet, today we see various organizations, coming from diverse backgrounds, working together in El Salvador within the FMLN — and all are genuine revolutionaries. This unity reflects the concrete process through which a vanguard developed in El Salvador. The experience in the Soviet Union is not the only form that history has provided for the development of a vanguard.

Genuine revolutionaries can have differences for the simple reason that revolutionaries can be wrong. In fact, all revolutionaries are wrong on one or another question at some time, and not merely with regard to secondary questions. Any honest historical study will show this to be the case. How could it be otherwise? We are all products of our societies, in spite of our dedication to social struggles.

Did Lenin reflect alien class pressures or stop being a proletarian because he opposed the soviets (mass united worker, peasant, and soldier councils) when they first appeared in 1905? Was Lenin no longer a revolutionary because he counterposed building a revolutionary party to building the soviets, or for later changing his mind and supporting soviets but insisting that the bourgeoisie be included in them?

Was Lenin no longer a revolutionary because he thought the revolution was in an upswing in early 1906 when it was in fact clearly declining? Or was Trotsky a hopeless petty bourgeois for disagreeing with Lenin on organizational questions for a whole period or for believing that the USSR would be crushed unless Europe went socialist? Was Che Guevara no longer a proletarian revolutionary because there were weaknesses in his attempt to project a road to victory in Latin America in his foquista orientation (emphasizing the creation of small, rural guerilla bands)?

Revolutionaries are people. Only with an anti-cult attitude can we form a genuine collective leadership and develop the modesty and humility necessary to listen, think, and act collectively. It is only when we demystify revolutionaries will it become possible to genuinely recognize their great contributions.

The our-day-will-come syndrome

Sectarian formations teach their followers that their day will come. Since their “program” will triumph when conditions ripen, their task is to accumulate cadres and wait. They prepare mainly by raising their political level (translation: convincing themselves that their program is correct and their leadership profound). They are not upset that they are not in the leadership of any struggles, since it is not yet the time for revolutionaries. The objective conditions, you see, have yet to ripen. This concept of “our day will come” or cheering other revolutions without looking at the potential of our own working class and oppressed layers has religious overtones of looking for a promised land.

Such a concept is neither Leninist nor materialist. There is today in the United States an ongoing class struggle that takes a variety of forms. A genuine vanguard would lead that struggle at whatever level possible.

No better example could be given than the need to defend the Central American revolution. This is not a task that can be postponed until conditions are ripe. We cannot wait until we have a better, more proletarian anti-intervention movement. We have to fight on every level possible, and those who lead such struggles today are the genuine beginnings of a vanguard.


What really, after all, is a program? A program is not a written instruction manual on how to make a revolution in your country, nor is it the “best” historical interpretation of all past events. (One fast give-away of sectarians is their preoccupation with proving their politically correct genealogy.)

A program is, rather, the working out of the tasks before the working class and its allies to liberate themselves from the exploitation and oppression they suffer under capitalism. A program also includes a strategy to eliminate racism, sexism, poverty, unemployment and endless other human tragedies of a society that places profits above human needs.

A program is a general guide, an outline of a strategy for liberation. It is based on lessons from history, but it is not history itself. By definition, a program avoids making historical interpretations except on the broad outlines required by the living struggle. A program is the attempt to generalize the lessons from the history of the class struggle and to apply them to the present epoch. A program is both specific, by incorporating national considerations, and general, by including the international framework.

The program that is of any use evolves. It must emerge not only from generalizations from past struggles, but from the concrete manifestations of present struggles. A movement not completely immersed in mass struggles is incapable of developing an effective program.

A program for the United States

A program for the Third American Revolution clearly evolves over time. A program written in 1984, as opposed to one written in 1954, would include a different spectrum of questions, though many fundamental considerations would remain the same. Issues that have evolved — or, where our understand ing has evolved — include the oppression of women, the treatment of homosexuals, problems related to pollution and the environment, the development of new sectors of the working class, and the tasks facing oppressed nationalities. To these, we can add the mass awareness of the growing threat o fnuclear war and the new immigration from Latin America, Asia, and other parts ofthe world.

The fact that the program evolves and that there are many aspects to this process in no way means that the struggle in the United States does not remain fundamentally between those who own capital and those who work for a living. Similarly, to specify the enormous weight of the struggles of oppressed nationalities and women, or to raise issues that cut across class lines such as the struggle against the threat of nuclear destruction, is not to reject the underlying class struggle, but rather to make it more balanced and concrete.

The example of Nicaragua

In order to illustrate the difference between Lenin’s views and the views so prevalent among the US “vanguard” groups, it is useful to look at an actual revolutionary experience. Nicaragua is better known by the present generation ofthe US left. than previous revolutions. (We could just as well take up other examples, including that of the Soviet Union, since the lessons to be drawn are quite similar, in spite of some important differences in form.)

In Nicaragua, the fundamental solution to all social problems was to win self-determination by driving US imperialism out of the country. This took the form of a struggle against the Somoza dynasty.

The FSLN began with only a handful of individuals as the left wing of the largest, and most broad-based movement in Nicaraguan history, the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. The FSLN founders offered a program based on proletarian methods of struggle (minus the rhetoric), that is, a definitive struggle against Somoza and Somocismo, and not one of a rearrangement of imperialist rule.

They sought to rid Nicaragua of Somoza through direct mobilization of the workers and peasants, together with whatever allies could be won among other social layers. They fought to build a broadly united mass movement based on specific demands. Through this process, they grouped the vanguard elements created by the anti-Somoza struggle.

They avoided interjecting divisive and unnecessary conditions for unity, carefully choosing the points of demarcation from other currents in the anti-Somoza stuggle. In stark contrast to the orientation of every US formation calling itself a “vanguard”, the FSLN never sought complete agreement on interpretations of history, much less made such an agreement a requirement to be part of the developing vanguagd in Nicaragua.

What exactly was the program of the FSLN? Their program was one of ending Somocismo and establishing a government truly representative of the working people of Nicaragua. Their strategy was the removal of Somocismo through direct action rather than Somoza’s removal through negotiations with imperialism, that policy being the strategy of the reformist wing of the anti-Somicistas. They sought to rely on the workers and the peasants, the two forces they felt would be willing to carry out a decisive and committed struggle to end Somoza’s rule, and to defend genuine self-determination.

Did the FSLN make errors? Of course. Only those who abstain from the complexity of the real living struggles make but one error — their abstention. Undoubtedly, the FSLN made many errors of both a right and left nature. Let us consider for a moment the sad consequence for Nicaragua if Carlos Fonseca and other founders of the FSLN had followed the methods of our US “vanguards”.

Suppose the FSLN founders had intellectualized their “program”, requiring agreement on interpretations of every faction fight in the history of the workers’ movement? What if, instead of developing the lines of demarcation between the FSLN and other currents on Nicaraguan issues, they had proceeded to engage in endless debates over Maoism, the validity of critiques of Stalinism, etc? What if they had argued that every difference on how to participate in a struggle mirrored positions taken at this or that time by the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks or the Social Revolutionaries?

What would have happened in Nicaragua? One thing is certain: such an approach by the FSLN would have facilitated Somoza’s efforts to isolate it. The FSLN organized Nicaragua’s natural vanguard. Fortunately, the FSLN acted in a Leninist fashion, without self-righteous fanfare and pompous self-justifications.

The programmatic and ideological misconceptions of our US “vanguards”, which separate them from the material reality of living struggles, regardless of verbal or written claims to the contrary, guarantee their isolation. If the FSLN had fallen into the US methodology, they would never have secured the commitment and dedication of their people to a determined, exceedingly difficult struggle for liberation.

The concrete tasks ofthe FSLN, which developed as a process, were and obviously are, different from those facing a vanguard formation in the United States, or in South Africa, or Sweden — but the method needed is similar.

What is applicable in one situation may be somewhat different in another. Issues that are secondary today and should not be dividing lines can become decisive tomorrow. And issues that may seem and, in fact be, decisive today can become secondary tomorrow. Program and points of demarcation evolve. Those who fail to appreciate such essentials will never build revolutionary movements, only highly intellectualized sects.

While each epoch and country may have sharply different needs, the method of building a revolutionary vanguard directly out of the living struggles, and of developing a program and organization as a process, are criteria that every revolutionary victory has shown to be a necessity.

Central America: the acid test

No example could be clearer than the developing revolutionary struggles in Central America. The peoples of this region have entered into a mass anti-imperialist struggle, opening up the possibility for a resolution of many years of oppression through the triumph of armed mass insurrectionary movements. The United States is the direct imperialist power involved. The future, not only of Central America but of our own movement, will be affected as a whole spectrum of international forces comes into play.

Those of us in the United States who consider ourselves sisters and brothers of all revolutionaries fighting for social justice must not fail to recognize both the duty to defend Central America and build opposition to US aggression, and the opportunity to increase political consciousness in the United States. History is written by millions, and history is being written today in Central America, a history which is our own.

Where are our “vanguards”? Who has stepped forward to defend these living social revolutions? Who has put the struggle of the Central American peoples above all factional or sectarian considerations? Who has sought to develop and build a unified movement based on living reality, taking advantage of every possibility to mobilize US forces in defense of Central America, and to neutralise or divide forces in the enemy camp?

Where are our “vanguards”? One is busy raiding a committee here and a committee there in an attempt to “get control”, maybe to recruit two new members. Another is pontificating about alleged errors of those who are actually doing something, such as setting up literature tables to inform the average person about the facts, or collecting funds for medical aid.

Another sect is selling its paper at every movement activity, all the while declaring the solidarity movement meaningless. Two sects even called ballot initiatives advocating non-intervention in Central America “obstacles” to a supposedly “truly” revolutionary approach. And to help facilitate the confusionist and obscurantist work of the bourgeois media, one of the more extreme sects will be sure to bring red flags bearing hammers and sickles to each demonstration.

One group will refuse to participate in the solidarity movement while declaring its unending support for the FMLN, while another comes to meetings to criticize the FMLN’s alleged “imminent sell-out”. The criticisms of these “vanguards”, of course, are self-described as being the most important “aid” of all.

Of course, organizations that have fallen into sectarian methodologies can, at times, in spite of errors, take a correct position on one or another question, or engage in useful propaganda work, and even occasionally make a positive contribution in the class struggle. But like a stopped watch that is right twice a day, they are useless as a guide to either our next step or our long-range perspectives, despite their undeniable good intentions. In addition, we must acknowledge that many individuals and groups may evolve in a healthy direction. The history of movements such as those in Nicaragua and El Salvador indicate that even groups that for a long time made all kinds of errors have changed, adapted, evolved.

But in this overall context, is it any surprise that, in city after city, those forces that are working on a day-to day basis to concretely defend Central America see the “vanguards” more often as obstacles than allies? What we are witnessing through the experience of Central America at this time is the bankruptcy of the US sectarians.

As opposed to the sectarians, a new, younger generation has stepped forward to place as its central concern advancing the real struggle against US.agression in the region. These activists have generated mutual respect and communication with the generations of Central American revolutionaries leading their people to self-determination. Without long theses and documents, a new generation of US solidarity activists is doing more effective work than the self-declared “Marxist-Leninist vanguards”. These younger forces, learning from the living struggle in Central America, are creating one part of a future framework from which a genuine US revolutionary vanguard can expand.