Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist)

Win The Vanguard!!

First Published: The Communist, Vol. II, No. 11, August 28, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Within the last year, two aspects of a correct line on party building have gained hegemony in our movement: first, that the basic task of party building is to win the vanguard to communism; second, that propaganda is the chief form of activity. Although interpretation of this line is by no means uniform, consolidation on it represents a good step forward.

Now, however, one of the groups making up the Organizing Committee established around OL’s Call to build a party has come forward to attack this line by substituting a new formulation for the main task of party building and by seeking to limit and narrow the scope of our propaganda. The article “Building the Party among the Masses,” is written by the League for Marxist-Leninist Unity.

Their argument is this: advanced workers according to Lenin’s definition in A RETROGRADE TREND IN RUSSIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY include only those who are already communists. They are a very small number and are mostly already in existing pre-party organizations. This follows from the fact that the advanced worker, according to Lenin, accepts socialism consciously and elaborated independent socialist theories. Therefore, they argue, we must distinguish advanced workers from the “best elements of the working class.” The best elements are not advanced but must be promoted to the ranks of the advanced workers by winning them to Marxism–Leninism. Since these elements are not advanced, they come from what Lenin called the average workers. The comrades write: “Our task is to promote ever greater numbers of workers to the level of the advanced. These advanced workers are promoted from the ranks of what Lenin called the average strata.” CLASS STRUGGLE, #4-5, p. 72) So our primary task is not to win over the advanced to communism, but to win over the best of the average. They write: “The main task was not to win advanced workers to communism, but to constantly reinforce and increase the numbers of advanced workers, and thus to form the ranks of the Party.” (p. 65) Or again, “Thus, the question is not one of winning these advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism” (p. 65). And again, “Winning these advanced workers is part of the general struggle for Marxist-Leninists to unite and is not our principal task in the workers’ movement.” (p. 65) Instead “the primary task of the party in its first period of its development will be to win the best elements of the working class to Marxism-Leninism and to the party.” (p. 86).

These formulations contradict the experience of the Bolshevik party on which we rely. In LEFT WING COMMUNISM – AN INFANTILE DISORDER, Lenin called “the first historical objective” of communists “that of winning over the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat to the side of soviet power and the dictatorship of the working class.” Because this requires “a complete ideological and political victory over opportunism and social chauvinism,” he writes: “As long as it was (And inasmuch as it still is) a question of winning the proletariat’s vanguard over to the side of communism, priority went and still goes to propaganda work,” (Peking ed. P. 97-98).

Stalin summed up these lessons of Lenin and the Bolshevik party in his synopsis for an article on strategy and tactics: “Tasks: a) To win the vanguard of the proletariat to the side of communism (i.e. build up cadres, create a Communist Party, work out the programme, the principles of tactics), Propaganda as the chief form of activity.” (CW, v. 5, p. 82).

How have these comrades fallen into such a thorny conflict with Lenin and Stalin? They have allowed themselves to look at the question statically and metaphysically rather than dialectically. “Advanced,” “vanguard,” “best elements” or “foremost representatives” which Lenin also uses, are all comparative words which cannot be used to establish fixed and isolated categories. Advanced has meaning only in relation to average and backward; by itself it has no independent meaning. Best elements has meaning only in relation to middle and worst elements. Vanguard means those which go in advance and can only be understood; in relationship to those who tail. What all these words have in common is to be first, primary, best, or leading, as against the ordinary or backward. In the classics of Marxism-Leninism they are used interchangeably. It is nonsense for these comrades to set up some heirarchy of meaning which they arbitrarily impose, i.e., “advanced” is number one, “vanguard” number two, “best elements” number three and so forth. Also they fail to grasp the sensible point that in any situation there are the advanced, intermediate and the backward. Lenin mocks the Economists in WHAT IS TO BE DONE?: “Are there not advanced people, “average people”, and “masses” among the intelligensia too?” (Pek. Ed. p. 161)

This is true of every Communist party and organization. Although a Communist party is the advanced detachment of the proletariat within each party there are the most advanced, the intermediate and the below average. This is true also of the leading body of every communist organization, and it is the task of leadership to know how to rely on the advanced in any situation. In fact; based on the experience of Lenin’s Iskra organization and the lessons of WHAT IS TO BE DONE, we have summed this up as one of the fundamental principles of party building: “to provide communist leadership on every task by uniting with the advanced and relying on the advanced to win over the intermediate and the backward.” (Party Building Resolution, THE COMMUNIST, v. 2, #1).

One of the chief defects in our movement to date, hindering us from forging a Bolshevik party is the widespread failure to grasp this principle, and instead, “on matters of leadership, bowing to the sentiments of the average or backward elements and failing to identify the advanced or to strengthen its leadership role in everything and rely on the advanced to win over the broad masses of workers and oppressed people.” (Party Building Resolutions). The line of the LMUL is a perpetuation of this error and a justification of our backwardness in that they bow to the average by setting as our primary task, not winning over the advanced, but the best of the average.

If we recognize that in every situation there are the advanced, the intermediate and the backward we can read Lenin’s famous quote from RETROGRADE TREND in a common sense way. There is no doubt that Lenin is holding up the Weitlings and the Bebels as the most advanced – they even elaborate independent socialist theories. There is no doubt either that he is talking about the great bulk of full time workers of the Russian revolutionary party – those who devote themselves entirely to the education and organization of the proletariat and who, he says, guide workers study circles and fill the tsarist prisons and placer of exile. The majority of these would not elaborate independent socialist theories like Bebel, but they are advanced nonetheless.

Lenin is also speaking here of the advanced coming to the fore who are still subjected to the stultifying penal servitude of factory labor. These “real heroes” are not full time professional party workers, but nevertheless they “possess so much character and will power they study, study, study, and turn themselves into conscious Social Democrats.” (CW, v.4, p. 280). These too are advanced workers. So even within Lenin’s definition there is room for the relatively more advanced, the relatively less advanced, the intermediate and the process of transformation.

There’s another point. As we say in our resolutions on FACTORY NUCLEI, (THE COMMUNIST v.2 #1), “We base ourselves on the industrial proletariat in the large factories and mills as the decisive sector of the revolutionary proletariat in regards to numbers and concentration, breadth of outlook arid influence, and strategic position and fighting capacity to overthrow monopoly capitalism. At the present our whole task must be to go lower and deeper among the working masses and to consolidate our position in the working class.” In other words the task of party building is to go to the decisive sectors of the proletariat and to identify the advanced in those situations. In those factories and mills the polemic to end these debates about who is advanced is written in sweat. And it takes some dry as dust “revolutionary” pessimist to think that the task can’t be done or that we are dealing with only a very tiny stratum. In this respect our situation is little different from that of the Bolsheviks: “There are no people – yet there is a mass of people.” (WHAT IS TO BE DONE, (Pek. Ed. p. 157)

There are large numbers of advanced workers in the mills and factories of the US and it is our backwardness, our inability to reach them with Marxism-Leninism, and above all the theoretical justifications of those facts that cause some among us to think that the numbers of the advanced are tiny. We lack experience and winning the vanguard is hard. But “revolutionary experience and organizationa1 skill are things that can be acquired, provided the desire is there to acquire them, provided the shortcomings are recognized, ”(Pek. p.40) What we have to fight is when people appear who regard shortcomings as virtues and give theoretical justification to our backwardness. That must be our position on the question of the advanced. We must fight every attempt to give up on the task of winning the vanguard to communism in order to drag our primary work backward to winning over the average.


Based on an incorrect analysis of the question of the advanced, that our primary task is to win the vanguard to communism, LMLU cannot in a straightforward way give priority to our propaganda work. They pay lip service to the position that propaganda is the chief form of our activity, but the leading role of propaganda work does not clearly emerge from their argument. Instead there is a tendency to belittle the role of propaganda and, as a consequence, the mobilizing, organizing and transforming power of Marxist-Leninist theory.

The first way that they belittle propaganda is to belittle its scope. This comes from their view that the advanced, to which propaganda is primarily directed, is only a tiny strata.

Second, they belittle the role of propaganda in a Bolshevik newspaper. In particular they criticize the newspapers of the Wing as being too theoretical and having too much propaganda. In their view this is because the Wing accepts Lenin’s “narrow” definition of an advanced worker. They write: “After all, if the main task is to win over workers who meet Lenin’s definition of advanced workers then it makes sense that their newspapers are written as they are, for such workers would be fully capable of grasping the content of such articles.” Wrong! It does not make sense because these newspapers are far, far too narrow to meet the needs of the advanced. But that isn’t the thrust of LMLU’s criticism. In their view these newspapers are not wrong because they are too narrow, but because they are written for the advanced and therefore could not be grasped by the “best elements” they want to work with. Unfortunately this view is another instance where they contradict the views of Lenin. Compare the passage just quoted with Lenin’s statement in RETROGRADE TREND: “The newspaper that wants to become the organ of all Russian Social Democracy must, therefore, be at the level of the advanced workers; not only must it not lower its level artifically, but, on the contrary: it must raise it constantly; it must follow up all the tactical, political and theoretical problems of world Social Democracy.” (CW, v.4, p. 280). In Lenin’s view a newspaper is written for the advanced – and according to his definition. Furthermore, according to Lenin, “The average worker will not understand some of the articles in a newspaper that aims to be the organ of the Party, he will not be able to get a full grasp of an intricate theoretical or practical problem.”

In other words, LMLU’s criticism of the newspapers of the Wing misses its mark. (In fact, if they followed Lenin’s view that a newspaper must be directed at the advanced, and then were consistent with their own interpretation of the advanced, they would call for cadres newspapers of the RCP kind.)

Another criticism they make of the Wing shows the third way in which these comrades belittle propaganda. They write: “Each of their newspapers is primarily propaganda. Only infrequently do they discuss concrete struggles that are occurring (except political line struggles within the communist movement). They do not take up mass campaigns in the pages of their newspapers. Rarely have they included agitational articles.” (p. 85).

This line equates agitation with the concrete struggle and propaganda with what is abstract. However both propaganda and agitation are empty and sterile if they are not a concrete application of Marxism-Leninism to concrete events. As Lenin makes clear, propaganda will take a concrete situation such as unemployment and explain it fully and in detail, while agitation will take a particular, incident or aspect of it and uses it in order to arouse discontent, anger and the passion for revolutionary activity.


The comrades insist that a newspaper in this period should be primarily agitational. We don’t disagree with that line, which is put forward by Lenin in the DRAFT DECLARATION OF ISKRA AND ZARYA.

We also agree that in general the agitational work of our movement is far too narrow – we do indeed intend to build the mass movement. But it is important that our position on agitation be subordinate to propaganda work which has priority. Our views on agitation must not become a cover or justification for diverting us from the central task of winning the advanced to communism.

In WHAT IS TO BE DONE, Lenin’s primary concern was with raising the level and expanding the scope of both propaganda and agitation and attacking all those who would restrict the propaganda and agitational tasks of the Iskra organization. He emphasized the need for comprehensive and topical political exposures that treated all the burning questions of the movement in all their aspects both to raise the consciousness of class conscious revolutionaries and also to guide the party and the masses in revolutionary activity. And, measured by Lenin’s ISKRA articles, the problem with the propaganda and agitational articles in our newspapers is not only that they are not sufficiently topical and concrete but also that they are not thorough and comprehensive enough.

During this period we think the work of our press overall, as with the rest of our work, must give priority to propaganda. Thus we think an organization such as ours which does not at this time publish a theoretical journal will place a relatively greater emphasis in its newspaper on propaganda. The line here, as Lenin says in the DRAFT DECLARATION, is not a mechanical one, but geared to serve our tasks.

In addition, we think that giving priority to propaganda means, above all, recognizing the leading role of propaganda at this time. We cannot lead the day to day struggles of the masses without consolidating a Bolshevik core. But in consolidating such cores, it is propaganda which is decisive and our press must play the guiding role in that work. For example, we have an article in this issue of THE COMMUNIST on agitation in one plant carried out around the struggle for trade union democracy. This work was based on a relatively low level of propaganda and small consolidation of the advanced forces. If it is to go forward and expand, broadening its scope to include also political agitation, it will be on the basis of the full consolidation of a Bolshevik core. This depends first of all on our propaganda work and the chief form of our activity is geared to that. Any belittling of our propaganda work in this sphere means to restrict the scope of our agitation as well, condemning our work to tailing the trade union movement. Thus we must be vigilant against any attempt to belittle the decisive role of propaganda or divert us to aimless agitation at the workplace and in the mass movement.

In concluding, we call the attention of comrades to our party building resolutions which present a correct view on many of these questions. We state that party building means winning the vanguard to communism as our central task. We use interchangeably the terms vanguard, advanced, foremost representatives and best elements, and state that we must subordinate all our work to the task of winning the vanguard. We point out that it is on the basis of a Bolshevik core that we lay the reliable foundation for expanding our political activity. We then state what we mean by winning the vanguard of the proletariat to communism. It means winning the foremost representatives and the best elements. It means “mobilizing the experience, revolutionary spirit, and selfless devotion of those who show their readiness and ability to serve the cause of the working class, who prove their ability to win the confidence of the masses, who accept communism consciously and who devote themselves entirely to the education and organization of the proletariat.”

Accomplishing this task requires “a complete ideological and political victory over opportunism, revisionism, chauvinism, narrow nationalism and all manifestations of bourgeois ideology” because it is opportunism in all its forms which keeps the advanced of the proletariat from communism and which is the primary obstacle to welding the core. Therefore the chief form of our activity must be propaganda. Other sections of the resolutions emphasize the need for comprehensive political exposures as the means to train the masses and ourselves in political consciousness and revolutionary activity.